The Pontificator becomes the Ruminator

•31 October 2012 • Comments Off

After several years of self-imposed exile from the blogosphere, I have begun blogging again.  I have entitled my new blog Eclectic Orthodoxy.  It is different from what Pontifications used to be.  A lot of ruminating, much less pontificating.  Perhaps you may find it of interest. Visit Eclectic Orthodoxy and join in the conversation.

The Sacrifice of Transubstantiation

•25 March 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

In his Natural History of Religion, the 18th century philosopher David Hume famously derides the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, asserting that no tenet in paganism invites as much ridicule. “For it is so absurd,” he writes, “that it eludes the force of all argument.” In the course of his polemic, he relates the story of the young Turk Mustapha, who had been taken prisoner and persuaded to convert to the Christian faith. The day after his baptism and communion the catechist continued his instruction and asked the young man, “How many Gods are there?” The new Christian replied, “None at all.” “How! None at all!” cried the priest. “You have told me all along that there is but one God,” explained Mustapha: “And yesterday I eat him.”

Mustapha’s confusion brings a smile to the Catholic face. Who hasn’t stumbled trying to explain the scholastic theory of transubstantiation? More than one intelligent Catholic has found himself lost in its metaphysical thicket. Perhaps even Thomas Aquinas awakened in the middle of the night once or twice wondering, “Does it really make sense to separate substance and accidents?” It is not surprising, therefore, that some contemporary Catholic theologians have sought to articulate the eucharistic mystery in fresh conceptualities. I confess that I am one person, partially due to my own limited intelligence and partially due to my personal aversion to metaphysics, who finds the scholastic presentation beyond my sympathies. Is it not better to be content with simply affirming the sacramental gift of Christ’s body and blood, specifying the dogmatic boundaries excluding error but refraining to plumb the sacred mystery too deeply?

Yet a hasty dismissal of the scholastic analysis of the eucharistic presence is surely not the wise course. Transubstantiation is the fruit of the theological and philosophical reflection of some of the greatest minds of Western Christendom. One cannot read Aquinas’s analysis of the eucharistic conversion without being impressed by both its metaphysical subtlety and metaphysical audacity. The Trinitarian formulations of Gregory of Nyssa or Augustine are no less complex and challenging; but we do not dismiss them because we find them difficult to comprehend, nor are we surprised by their antinomies and paradoxes. We know that language must be broken if the ineffable mystery of God is to be faithfully stated. Transubstantiation also attempts to bring to speech a mystery that exceeds our comprehension and verbal expression. As Herbert McCabe acknowledges, “We do not know what we are talking about when we speak of transubstantiation” (God Matters, p. 149). We do not know what we are talking about, because we cannot grasp what it means for a change to occur at the fundamental level of existence itself. The scholastic separation of substance and accident may seem inconceivable, yet it is this breaking of language that brings illumination.

Discussion of transubstantiation inevitably focuses on the question of real presence and the consecrated elements, as if the Eucharist was given to us simply to confect the presence of Christ’s body and blood. But this focus abstracts the holy gifts from the liturgy and thus tends to distort a proper understanding of the sacrament. We forget that the Eucharist is a sacramental event in which the sacrifice of Calvary is presented to God, for the good of the Church and the world, for the living and the dead. As E. L. Mascall rightly reminds us:

It is important to remember that not only are the Eucharistic elements the effectual signs of the body and blood of Christ, but also that the Eucharistic action is the effectual sign of his redemptive act. The Real Presence is for the sake of the sacrifice, not vice versa. (Corpus Christi, p. 141n)

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The sacrifice of the incarnate Son is the very heart of the Holy Eucharist.

In his book Sacrifice and Community, Matthew Levering argues that the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist is the driving force behind Thomas Aquinas’s formulation of transubstantiation. “The doctrine of transubstantiation,” he argues, “enables Christians to affirm the radical insertion of believers into Christ’s sacrifice” (pp. 116-117). The following passage from the Summa Theologiæ is illuminating:

We could never know by our senses that the real body of Christ and his blood are in this sacrament, but only by our faith which is based on the authority of God. For this reason Cyril, commenting on the text of Luke, this is my body which is given for you, says, do not doubt the truth of this, but take our Saviour’s word in faith: he is truth itself, he does not lie.

This is entirely in keeping, first of all with the perfection of the New Law. The sacrifices of the Old Law contained that true sacrifice which was the passion of Christ, only in a figurative way; as we read in Hebrews, the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities It was only right that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, that it contain Christ himself who suffered for us, and contain him, not merely as by a sign or figure, but in actual reality as well. So it is that this sacrament which really contains Christ himself is, as Dionysius says, the fulfilment of all the other sacraments, in which a share of Christ’s power is to be found. (3a.71.1)

Israel rightly understood that community with the living God is established through sacrifice. The divine command to Abraham to immolate his son Isaac, the slaying and eating of the Passover lamb, the covenantal sacrifice at Mount Sinai, the sacrifices of Tabernacle and Temple—all witness to the necessity of sacrifice for vital relationship with God. This necessity is lived out and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel and incarnate Son of God. At his Last Supper, Messias gives to his disciples a sacramental meal by which they may enter into his sacrifice:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying ‘Drink of it, all of you; this is is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt 26:26-28 )

In the Holy Eucharist the people of the New Covenant re-present to God the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and feast upon the Lamb slain for the sins of the world. If the Eucharist is to be a true and effective sacrament of the sacrifice, the body and blood of the now living Christ must be really and substantially present—present to be offered, present to be eaten. “Bodily contact with Jesus is necessary,” explains Levering, “because ‘the perfection of the New Law’ requires a sharing of his sacrifice that goes beyond offering him up in faith—as was possible in Israel’s sacrifices—and achieves actual bodily sharing in his sacrifice, true offering up of Jesus in and with him. Such a sacrificial offering, the ‘sacrifice of the New Law,’ could not take place without the bodily presence of ‘Christ Himself crucified'” (p. 136).

Christ in his body and blood must be present in the Holy Eucharist, precisely because the sacrifice of Christ is the fulfillment and perfection of the sacrifices of Israel. As the old Israel was a community of sacrifice, so the new Israel is a community of sacrifice—but with this critical difference: whereas the sacrifices of Israel anticipated and prefigured the one sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifices of the Church commemorate, embody, and re-present the one sacrifice of Christ. A mere symbolic or spiritual offering would be equivalent to a return to the days before Christ; but worse, it would represent a denial of the necessity to be a sacrificing community.

Christ’s one sacrifice, and it alone, is the “sacrifice of the New Law,” the sacrifice that fulfills the Old Law by establishing perfect justice and reconciling human beings to God. The New Law in believers is our participation, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, in Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Law. The “perfection” of the New Law goes beyond that made possible by faith in his offering. Israel, according to Aquinas, displayed such faith in her divinely commanded offering of animal sacrifice, but the perfect sacrifice, as the letter to the Hebrews makes clear, is now here. The perfection of the New law means that believers, as the people of God (not merely as individuals), offer the perfect sacrifice to God. Israel offered animal sacrifices that prefigured Christ’s sacrifice. After Christ’s coming and his establishment of the New Law on the Cross, believers do not offer this sacrifice only spiritually, as Israel did. Rather the “perfection” of the New Law consists precisely in bodily offering Christ’s sacrifice in and with Christ. It is this offering of Christ’s sacrifice that constitutes the people of God as Christ’s Mystical Body. Offering in union with him the sacrifice of his body, believers become the sacrificial Body of their Head. Were Christ not bodily present, believers could not offer up Christ’s sacrificial body, and the New Law would not attain “perfection,” but would instead remain at the figural level, a level already attained through Israel’s sacrificial worship. To attain perfection means to share in Christ’s bodily sacrifice in and through which justice—true interpersonal communion—is attained. Such a “Law” constitutes a “perfect” community. Our “perfection” comes in sharing in this Law of love by sharing in its accomplishment. (pp. 136-137)

The soteriological and ecclesial intent of transubstantiation is now clear—to secure, according to the promises of Christ, both the expiatory reality of the Church’s sacramental oblation and our full bodily participation in the sacrifice of Calvary. The sacrifice of the Mass must be more real, more true, more effectual than the sacrifices of Israel. It must be nothing less than the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the world. It must be the sacrifice of the body of God.

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Internet Articles on Eucharist

•22 March 2008 • Comments Off

I recently found on the net the following articles that may be of interest:

Herbert McCabe, “Eucharistic Change

Terence Nichols, “‘This is my body': how to understand transubstantiation

Aidan Kavanagh, “The True Believer

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity

Also, my Pro Ecclesia article is now available for download: “Eating Christ

Counting the Saved

•16 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

How many souls will be lost? How many saved? As Avery Cardinal Dulles observes in his article “The Population of Hell,” this question has fascinated and haunted Christians from the earliest days of the Church. Will all be saved? many? few? An answer is not given in the divine revelation, yet theologians and preachers have not been able to restrain themselves from speculating. “Among thousands of people,” St John Chrysostom declared, “there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.” We look out at the world and assess the lives of those we see—and we count. We count to warn ourselves and each other. We count to encourage ourselves and each other. But we count. Even Popes count.

In his recent encyclical the Holy Father states his personal hope that the damned will be few. At the moment of death our decision for or against God is definitively set. This decision can take many different forms. At one end of the spectrum are those who have destroyed within themselves all love—these are the damned; at the other end are those who are utterly permeated by love and given to love—these are the saints. But in between are those who possess an ultimate interior openness to God yet an openness imperfectly realized. Like the saints, these individuals too are saved, yet they still need to undergo further purification in order to perfect their capacity to enjoy and love God. “We may suppose,” opines Benedict, that this group constitutes “the great majority of people.” And if most will be saved, then we may therefore infer that the damned will be few. Though Benedict does not in fact explicitly claim to know that any specific individual is damned, he acknowledges that “alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.” Names such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot immediately come to mind. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who left open the possibility that God might save all, Benedict appears to believe that Hell is probably populated; but hopefully it will be a relatively small community. In a recent question and answer session with the priests of Rome, Benedict elaborated:

I tried to say: perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.

On the other hand, they are certainly few—or at least not very many—who are so pure that they can immediately enter into communion with God.

Very many of us hope that there might be something salvageable within us, a final willingness to serve God and to serve men, to live according to God. But there are so many, many wounds, so much filth. We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: even with so much filth in our soul, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, He washes us finally with his goodness that comes from his cross. He thus makes us capable of living for Him forever.

I was, I must admit, surprised to find Benedict speculating, even tentatively, in this way and must respectfully submit my disagreement. I believe all such speculating on the numbers of the saved and the damned to be unhelpful, both to the spiritual growth of the faithful and to the evangelistic mission of the Church.

How does Benedict know, how can anyone know, what percentage of humanity will be saved? We believe with the Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the canonical saints are saved and now enjoying the beatific vision; but what about the rest of humanity? How does Benedict know about them? In fact, he doesn’t. No one does. Perhaps the Lord has privately revealed such information to someone, but the Pope is not relying on private revelation.

Given that I do not have the opportunity to ask the Holy Father about the grounds of his conjecture, I have asked myself: If I were to propose that the large majority of humanity will be saved, on what grounds would I do so? I would do so, I think, on the basis of my personal experience of other people, both Christian and non-Christian, then extrapolating to the whole of humanity. In my experience, most people are decent folk. They work hard for a living. They try to live moral lives. They sacrifice for family and friends. They avoid hurting others, at least until desire, passion, or need strongly asserts itself in their lives. Most people are decent. Most people are nice. Most people certainly do not appear to be evil, when compared to the truly wicked few. And most of the people I know are open, in some way or another, to transcendence. They do not appear to have definitively closed their hearts to God. Of course, my experience of people is fairly limited. I have spent most of the past thirty years in the company of practicing Christians. But as far as I can tell, most Christians are not significantly more decent than non-Christians.

But does this natural goodness allow me to infer that they are saved or will be saved? Does this decency in fact amount to being supernaturally oriented to God, i.e., in a state of grace? Surely not.

I have omitted one important fact: as decent as most people I know may be, I have to admit that every person I know is also selfish, even the nicest ones. My experience, in other words, confirms a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church—the doctrine of original sin.

According to magisterial teaching, every human being is born into a state of spiritual death and alienation from God. Every human being is born into a world dominated by Satan and corrupted by death and sin. And in a mysterious way which I at least cannot explain, these three elements—spiritual alienation from God, oppression by Satan, and deformation by a sinful world—coincide. To put it simply, every human being begins his life heading away from God, with Satan and the world conspiring to keep it that way. Every person thus needs to be regenerated by a sovereign act of grace and incorporated into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Against the reality of original sin is the commitment of the Holy Trinity to restore mankind to himself through Jesus Christ. God desires the salvation of every human being and provides sufficient grace for each person to find him and turn to him. Catholic Christians confess that God’s saving grace is communicated through the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the ordinary means of salvation, and on this basis she commits herself to the vigorous evangelization of all peoples; but we also believe that God does not restrict his grace to the ministry of the visible Church. In the words of Vatican II:

This missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:45), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. … Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. (Ad gentes 7)

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen gentium 16; cf. Gaudium et spes 22)

Original sin, the necessity of gospel and Church, and the universality of God’s salvific will—how do we coordinate these teachings? Their coordination has been the task of Catholic theologians since Vatican II. It is beyond my competence to assess the theories advanced, but such an assessment is unnecessary for present purposes. However we may articulate the interior self-communication of God to sinners, we are not permitted to assert as fact that by his Spirit God has regenerated, and thus overcome original sin in, every unbaptized human being. This would reduce the Sacrament of Holy Baptism to symbolic announcement. We may and must proclaim, with John Paul II, that “man—every man without any exception whatever—has been redeemed by Christ” and that therefore “with man—with each man without exception whatever—Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it” (Redemptor hominis 14); and again: “We are dealing with ‘each’ man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery” (13). We may and must proclaim the work of salvation objectively accomplished in the incarnate Word, who has regenerated human nature by sufferings, death, and resurrection. Yet divine revelation does not allow us to take that further step and announce that the work of salvation is subjectively accomplished in every human being or even most human beings. There is mystery here that must be respected.

In other words, we are not permitted to count either the damned or the saved. As Dulles writes, “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics.” I would add that searching for numbers in the demography of purgatory is equally futile.

Jesus was once asked the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Our Lord’s answer is instructive: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). Jesus refuses to answer the question and instead turns it back on the head of the questioner. He will not entertain the speculation, because it draws attention from the only thing that matters, namely, the call to faith that is spoken to us by Christ at this very moment. Why are you worried about all the others? Jesus asks. Look at me. Listen to my words. Heed my summons. Convert. The time for decision is now.

All conjecture on the number of the saved and the damned directs us away from Christ. Look at everyone else, we say. Most are pretty good people, are they not? They do not appear to have damned themselves by a definitive destruction of love and denial of truth. Yes, they aren’t saints. Yes, they will probably need to undergo purgatorial purification. But isn’t it encouraging that most will be saved? And if the majority, perhaps the large majority, of folks will be saved, then odds are I am included in their number! After all, I’m not nearly as wicked as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. And thus I decline, without even realizing it, the summons to faith.

In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths (19 November 1950), C. S. Lewis wrote of the need for spiritual regeneration and warned against inferring a state of regeneration based on behavior and moral goodness:

The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence [1979], p. 100)

Lewis, I am sure, would agree that true sanctity is discernible in others, for those who have eyes to see; yet as Pope Benedict states, the saints are few. For the rest of us, it is all too easy to confuse moral decency and goodness, or at least absence of grievous sin, with spiritual life. Christians presume a state of grace for those involved in the sacramental life of the Church, yet the Church has always warned her members of the mortality of sin and the need for continual conversion to Christ. We may not presume that others are saved or in the process of being saved because they are decent or at least not truly wicked people. We may not presume that we are saved or in the process of being saved because we are decent or at least not truly wicked people. There is no substitute for gospel, repentance, and prayer. We must cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ and pray for the anointing of the Spirit. We must seek to be found in Christ, for he alone is the assurance that we are on the right path.

It is thus unhelpful and indeed misleading to think of damnation in terms of the alarming profiles that always come to mind. The Hitlers and Stalins remind us of the frightening conclusion of damnation, but what is important is the road we are on. We are each headed in one of two directions. We are each becoming either a person of Heaven or a person of Hell.

In George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Princess and Curdie, Curdie is given a great gift. He is instructed to place his hands into a fire of roses. Upon withdrawing his hands, the Princess explains that people are either traveling humanward or beastward, and which direction they are moving is not easily discerned. “Two people may be at the same spot in manners and behaviour,” she says, “and yet one may be getting better and the other worse, which is just the greatest of all differences that could possibly exist between them.” The kind of person they are becoming is always first evident in their hands, in their “inside hands” of which the outside hands are but the gloves. Sadly, those who are becoming beasts are unaware of their fate:

Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them.

The Princess then tells Curdie that he has been given the magical gift of discerning by a handshake whether a person is becoming a beast and if so what kind of beast he is becoming. Curdie asks if it will be his job then to warn everyone “whose hand tells me that he is growing a beast.” Alas, replies the Princess, most will not listen to the truth, for they are ceasing to be human.

This is the great danger that lies before us, and that danger is exponentially magnified if we begin to think we are safe because we are not like the truly wicked. Perhaps we do not boast of our virtues, as did the Pharisee after comparing himself to the publican. We rely instead on our relative lack of wickedness. “I thank thee, O Lord, that I have not committed as many mortal sins as Osama bin Ladin.” But as Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood: “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, XII).

Strive to enter through the narrow door!

 

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Protestants and Purgatory

•7 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

Protestants and Purgatory do not go together. Of course, there are exceptions—C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind—but as a rule, Protestant Christians firmly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Many reject it because they do not find it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. Others reject it because they believe that it contradicts the Reformation doctrine of justification. But does it contradict this doctrine? must it? It all depends, suggests Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls, on how we relate justification to sanctification. This relationship has been a matter of intractable dispute between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestants and Protestants. Walls believes, though, that if we begin our reflection with Heaven we may discover possibilities for resolution.

“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness,” declares St Augustine. Eternal life with God is the goal and fulfillment of our existence. God is our supreme good, consummation, and end. We were made to live with him and to find in him satisfaction and joy. “This point,” insists Walls, “must be emphasized: Salvation itself is our final happiness. There is a tight, integral connection between moral renewal, salvation, and human fulfillment and happiness. … Salvation is much more than mere morality. It is finally a matter of knowing God as fully as we are capable of knowing him and thereby experiencing the fullness of life” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, pp. 37-38).

But we are not presently the kind of persons capable of Heaven. We are at war with our Creator and at war with our selves. In our fallen condition we are not disposed to love and worship God. We are inclined, rather, to self-centeredness, ingratitude, and disobedience. Our salvation therefore requires our personal transformation and the healing of our disordered desires. We must become persons who love God as their supreme good, who believe that he is infinitely praiseworthy, who desire to be eternally united to him in mutual self-giving. Becoming persons who find their ultimate felicity in Heaven is the heart and center of salvation:

The joy and happiness of heaven is precisely the joy and happiness of salvation. Salvation is essentially a matter of loving God and being rightly related to him. This relationship is the source of our deepest delight and satisfaction. Heaven is not a place that could be enjoyed apart from loving God in the way made possible by salvation. There is no question of “going to” heaven if one is not the sort of person who has the sort of desires and affections for God that heaven satisfies. (p. 40)

Walls is thus critical of forensic construals of justification that neatly cordon off sanctification. “The essence of salvation,” he explains, “is the real transformation that allows us to love God and enjoy fellowship with him. The element of forgiveness, although crucial, is secondary to this” (p. 50). To be declared righteous but never to become righteous is no salvation at all. The best in Reformation theology has always recognized the inseparable union of justification and sanctification, but this unity is often broken, he avers, in popular preaching and piety. The result is a portrayal of faith in Christ that “seems magical and void of moral and intellectual seriousness” (p. 41). Justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. We cannot honestly plead the atoning sacrifice of Christ and simultaneously refuse to become the kind of persons we are called by God to be, to become the kind of persons who are capable of enjoying Heaven. “To plead the atonement,” Walls continues, “we must acknowledge God as God. We must own his purposes for our lives and recognize them as good. That is, God’s purposes for us are indeed for our well-being and ultimate happiness and satisfaction. But we cannot merely ask God’s forgiveness and proceed with our purposes apart from God. To attempt to do this is to operate with a false valuation of both ourselves and of God” (p. 51). Human cooperation with grace would therefore seem to be indispensable in the process of salvation. We cannot by our own powers convert and heal ourselves. God must convert and heal us; yet he must do so, and does do so, in a way that elicits our free cooperation and involvement. In the words of Augustine: “But He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.”

But how does God transform us in the depths of our being without violating our freedom and personhood? Here Walls appeals to the reflections of Eleonore Stump. If we understand the human self as a unity of hierarchically ordered desires, then we can distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our basic desires; second-order desires are our desires about our desires. Stump cites the character of Rosamond Lydgate in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Rosamond is selfish and manipulative. How, speculates Stump, might God effect her conversion without compromising her personhood? Rosamund must begin to see the wickedness of her actions and the disorder of her primary desires. She must form, in response to grace and in grace, second-order desires that God will change her first-order desires and bring them into conformity with his will. This transformation, as we know from personal experience, simply takes time. Our sanctification is not completed the instant we form a second-order desire to be sanctified. Our volition at this point is vague, says Stump, and insufficiently powerful to effect an immediate conversion of our primary desires:

It consists in a general submission to God and an effective desire to let God remake one’s character. But a willingness of this sort is psychologically compatible with stubbornly holding on to any number of sins. … Making a sinner righteous, then, will be a process in which a believer’s specific volitions are brought into harmony with the governing second-order volition assenting to God’s bringing her to righteousness, with the consequent gradual alteration in first-order volitions, as well as in intellect and emotions. (Quoted on p. 56)

We may broadly desire to be made holy. We may desire that God would change one or more of our primary desires. But it is possible for us to desire all of this and yet not recognize all of our sins as sins or “perceive their destructiveness to the point of truly wishing to be delivered from them” (p. 56). We must grow into this knowledge and freedom. It takes time for grace to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our characters. It takes time for us to pierce the levels of our selfishness and self-deception and to accept the truth of ourselves and, most importantly, to accept the full-range of God’s will for us.

Our free response to grace is necessary for our transformation. God does not impose himself. He does not coerce our acceptance of his gift of love, nor does he overrule our wills in the process of sanctification. God respects our constitution as free beings and graciously guides us into full communion with him. “God enables our transformation each step of the way,” Walls writes, “but our cooperation is necessary for our sanctification to go forward” (p. 55). But what if we die imperfectly sanctified? If in this life God respects and works within our freedom, is it not reasonable to think that he will continue to do so in the next? Walls suggests that the point needs to be made even stronger: “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why he would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering” (p. 55). Hence Walls believes there are good reasons for Protestants to reconsider the doctrine of Purgatory (also see “Purgatory for Everyone”).

Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.

Is Purgatory, therefore, compatible with a forensic understanding of justification? Absolutely, answers Walls. Since forensic justification is concerned with our acceptance by God, and not with our being internally made righteous, it does not, in principle, provide a basis for objecting to the proposal of purgatorial sanctification.

The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting conclusion:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first”? “It may hurt, you know.”—“Even so, sir.”

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Purgatory as Self-Knowledge

•4 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

This statement succinctly states the fundamental approach of contemporary Catholicism to eschatology: the Last Things are understood as aspects and dimensions of the final encounter with the Triune God. The result has been a movement away from the juridical metaphors that have dominated Catholic imagination for the past millenium. “The court room scene,” writes Fr Zachary Hayes, “is replaced with an interpretation in which the primary metaphors are derived from the experience of personal encounter. The traditional symbols are not lost but are given a new interpretation which stands fully within the framework of theological possibilities left open by the church’s magisterial teaching” (Visions of a Future, pp. 115-116).

The interpretation of the Last Things in terms of personal encounter has been widely received within the Catholic Church. A good example is philosopher Peter Kreeft’s popular and insightful work Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking [Heaven]. Kreeft devotes a chapter to the theme of Purgatory. He also briefly discusses Purgatory in his book Catholic Christianity [CC].

Kreeft notes that the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory seems to be intractable, yet he believes it is resolvable, “if we will only look at Purgatory as the saints do” (Heaven, p. 62). Purgatory, argues Kreeft, logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in Heaven. “At the moment of death,” he writes, “most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ’s Body and having thereby received God’s supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin” (CC, p. 149). But Heaven requires perfect holiness, not as an arbitrarily-imposed condition, but because Heaven simply is a perfect communion of love and self-giving. No one can love God with all of his heart and soul and body until he has been purified of twisted self-love and liberated from attachments and delusion. If we are not ready for Heaven when we die, then we must somehow be made ready beyond death. Purgatory refers to this process of being made ready for Heaven. Kreeft identifies four essential notes of Purgatory (Heaven, pp. 62-63):

1) Purgatory is a part of Heaven. It is not a distinct “place” between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory is Heaven’s anteroom in which the elect are prepared, cleansed, healed, matured, and sanctified. It is the wash-room, where we shed our dirty clothes and plunge into a hot bath before entering the majestic palace of the King. Purgatory is therefore temporary. There are only two eternal destinies—Heaven and Hell.

2) Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.

3) Purgtory is a place of sanctification, not justification. Only the forgiven and justified enter into the final purification. Sin is not paid for in Purgatory but surgically removed. The doctrine of Purgatory neither challenges nor diminishes the finished work of Christ on the cross.

4) Purgatory is a place of education, not works. Purgatory is not a second chance to merit salvation through good deeds but an opportunity to acquire “a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chance, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.”

Kreeft acknowledges the long-standing tradition that speaks of Purgatory as the expiation of the temporal punishment due to our sins, but he insists that this punishment must be interpreted by its eschatological purpose—the transformation of sinners into saints:

The reason for purgatory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation, it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God’s loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14). (CC, pp. 149-150)

Kreeft’s favorite image of Purgatory is that of reading a book: “Purgatory is reading the already-written book of your life with total understanding and acceptance—the total understanding that comes only from total acceptance” (Heaven, 65). With the story of our mortal lives having reached conclusion, we can step back and read and re-read our stories from God’s perspective, without fear of condemnation, without rationalization and self-deception. Purgatory provides us the freedom to confront our histories and understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves and most importantly for others. “Since in Purgatory,” Kreeft explains, “we do not make different choices but only see and understand clearly all our past choices, the only virtue there is knowledge, and education there does cure all moral ills” (p. 64).

“Human kind,” T. S. Elliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” Humankind cannot bear to see the destruction and horror that it brings into the world, cannot bear to accept the responsibility for the injuries it has afflicted on others. Our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge; but in Purgatory God reveals to us the truth of our lives. Denial is no longer a possibility. God delivers us from our delusions and brings us into reality, into knowledge, into responsibility. This is the suffering of Purgatory.

Sin is purged by sharing in our destiny as light. We see the meaning and the effects of all our sins in Purgatory—their effects on others as well as ourselves, both directly and indirectly, through chains of influence presently invisible, chains so long and effectual that we would be overwhelmed with responsibility if we saw them now. Only a few can endure the saint’s insight that “we are each responsible for all.” … In Purgatory I will experience all the harm I have done, with sensitized and mature conscience. This is a suffering both more intense and more useful than fire or merely physical pain. But I will experience it also with the compassion and forgiveness of God, forgiving myself as God forgives me. … After we remember sin, we can forget it; after we take it seriously, we can laugh at it: after we share in the sufferings of the God Who experienced Hell for us (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”), we can share in His “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our experience and forgiveness will be perfect in Purgatory because there we will know. (pp. 68-69)

In C. S. Lewis’s parable The Great Divorce, the visitors from the grey town are met in Heaven by old friends and relatives, who seek to assist them in their journey to God. In love, honesty, and frankness, each speak truth to the visitors. Alas, only one visitor decides to remain in Heaven. The others choose to deny their sins and to return to the grey town. Perhaps this is one of the important functions of the communion of saints—to assist us in the apprehension of our sins. The support of the saints may well be crucial as we read the book of our lives. Reading is most effective when exercised in community. And perhaps in some mysterious way our penitent acceptance of our sins will be instrumental in the healing and final sanctification of those whom we have injured. Perhaps we will even be allowed to ask and receive their forgiveness. The communion of saints, suggests Kreeft, is essential to the process of purgatorial transformation, “for there is no more effective method of religious education than the presence of saints” (p. 72). Even in Purgatory, especially in Purgatory, we need teachers and communicators of holiness. Sanctity is a dynamic, contagious, revelatory power.

“Purgatory, like Heaven,” concludes Kreeft, “is joy and truth. Heaven is the perfection of joy and truth. Hell is the refusal to accept truth and therefore the refusal of joy” (p. 71).

(To be continued)

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The Fire That Is Christ

•1 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

What does the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory mean? Pope Benedict XVI takes up this question in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi.

“With death,” writes the Holy Father, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge.” We come into the holy presence of our creator as persons whose lives have taken on certain shape. Our stories have been written; our personal narratives have reached decisive conclusion; the trial is finished. We have become, in the most fundamental sense, the kind of persons we are and shall ever be. We stand before the living God as individuals who have either rejected his love and mercy or who have embraced his love and mercy.

There can be people, Benedict warns, who have destroyed in their hearts the desire for truth and the readiness to love. Hatred, greed, and mendacity control and determine them. Such individuals are truly damned; they have damned themselves. “In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.” There can also be people who are completely permeated by God. Their hearts are filled with love. Their entire being is consecrated to God, who is the consummation of “what they already are.” These are the saints. They die into the immediate vision of God. But in between, as it were, are those who die in a deep interior openness to love, to truth, to God, but whose concrete choices have been “covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” What happens to these individuals? Will their impurity suddenly cease to matter?

Following Western exegetical tradition, Benedict appeals to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for guidance:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:11-15)

Paul is employing imagery to speak of that which we cannot literally describe. As Benedict notes, “we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it.” But Paul is confident in the victory of the resurrection. When the final day arrives, those who have built the foundation of their lives upon Jesus Christ will endure. Much may be lost in the fire of God’s judgment, but the believer will survive. “In this text,” Benedict explains, “it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.”

But what is this fire? In the past many Western theologians have interpreted the purgatorial fire as a material fire, but Benedict chooses a symbolic interpretation—the fire is Christ Jesus himself!

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

The Pope thus proposes an understanding of Purgatory as personal encounter with the Savior who is infinite love and grace. In the eschatological moment, the duration of which transcends earthly reckoning, we are liberated from self-deception and bondage. Christ pulls us to himself, as through fire. The dross of guilt is burnt away. We are purified of all remaining egoism. The purgatorial transformation necessarily implies suffering, as we submit to the fire of love and surrender our sins and attachments, yet in the midst of this suffering we rejoice in the gift of our healing and deliverance.

Benedict elaborated this understanding of Christ’s fiery love in his book Eschatology, originally published in 1977:

Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy. (pp. 230-231)

Though the Latin tradition has typically construed the period of purgatorial transformation in temporal terms, Benedict recognizes the inappropriateness of this construal. The duration of transformation cannot be quantified according to any measure that we can understand. The transformation is indeed a transition, but its measure “lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed” (p. 230). Benedict would also have us understand that the first judgment at the moment of death is ultimately identical to the final judgment at the Great Assize; the two are indistinguishable. “A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality,” Benedict writes, “is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire” (p. 230).

(To be continued)

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