Pontifications on “pro multis”

Over at Pontifications someone threw his hat into the ring about the pro multis question.  Over there you can read:

I’m all in favor of correct or superior translations of biblical and liturgical texts, and therefore I support the restoration of the pro multus [sic]. But it does appear to me that too much is being made about this change. If the change signified a return to hard-core Augustinianism, then the matter would be worth passionate debate; but clearly this is not what is happening. The Catholic Church is absolutely and definitively committed to the unviersal salvific will of God and the universality of Christ’s work of atonement, coupled with the recognition that sinners, including those who have been born again by water and Spirit, possess the freedom to say no to Christ. The seriousness of hell and damnation cannot and should not be denied. The question of our eternal destiny is too important.

However, some folks are talking as if they actually know that only many, perhaps few, will be saved.

He has a point.  Only God knows what is going on with this.  However, I think we can be reasonably sure that someone in the history of mankind has refused to be God’s friend.  Whaddya think?  Reasonable?  If hell is a reality and if one is unfortunately there destined, then "all" are not saved.

The post at Pontifications interjects a good point, however.  We cannot be sure about God’s judgments or His mercy.  I will add at the same time that we must not be presumptuous about God’s mercy.  Humbly confident, yes, but not presumptuous.


Lest we think that too much is being made of the translation of the form of consecration of the Precious Blood, let us not forget that the way we pray has a reciprocal relationship with what we believe.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Paul Haley says:

    Matt, Chap 7, 13-14: “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!
    Is this not the unerring word of God and does this not say all we need to know about salvation?

  2. Adam van der Meer says:

    Also, you can find several verses that indicate that Judas didn’t make the right decision in the end – he is the “son of peridition” who was “lost” (Jn 17:12), it would have been better for him if he had not been born (cf. Mt 26:24, Mk 14:21), after initially repenting he “went and hanged himself” (Mt 27:3-5), etc.

    While the Church does not teach that certain people are in hell, there is a decent case from Scripture that Judas might be — not that we want that, but it seems possible from the text.

    Also, of course many of the saints have had visions of hell. St. Faustina spoke with sisters who were in hell (“What’re you in for?”).

    Even though we won’t know for sure about the “population of hell” — I think as Cardinal Dulles wrote it in a First Things article a year or two ago — we must at least believe in its existence as the Church teaches and therefore work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not, as Fr. Z. has reminded us, presuming upon God’s mercy.

  3. If everyone goes to Heaven, then we don’t have free will. If we have no free will we cannonot love God. If we can’t love God, how will we attain Heaven?
    The “everyone goes to Heaven thinking just doesn’t work. Which should really spur us on to conversion. Fear of hell might not be the most noble of reasons, but the Church does teach that it is a very useful reason for conversion and is at least the first step.

  4. Michael says:

    Christ Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

    Should we respond with a “Oh, yes they will”? Or even a “Maybe you’re right, LORD, but maybe you’re wrong”?

    If the Author of life says that not all will enter into friendship with God, it is probably reasonable to assume that He might have some reliable insights on the subject.

  5. dcs says:

    However, some folks are talking as if they actually know that only many, perhaps few, will be saved.

    If by this he means that we cannot know that all will not be saved, then in my humble opinion he is mistaken. I agree that we should not worry about the “mathematics” of hell, but at the same time we should oppose error (namely, that we can hope for the salvation of all) when we see it.

  6. This is a subtle question, requiring great care.

    I’ll offer some thoughts, which I will state very precisely, and I would appreciate responses attending to the precision I’m aiming at. (I say that because, for whatever reason, this subject inflames some people and overreact.)

    I think it is reasonable, on the basis of public revelation, to say that it remains possible that hell will end up being empty, but for the fallen angels. I believe nothing in the Deposit of Faith requires one to believe any human being will actually be damned.

    Whether any human beings have been, or will be, damned, I cannot say either way. We certainly have private revelation that offers answers, and we have information from public revelation that might give an answer — such as the fate of Judas Iscariot — but I don’t see that as conclusive.

    As to our Lord’s statements about damnation and salvation, such as quoted above.

    I believe it is reasonable to read those statements not as predictive, but as cautionary. So when he says, to us, seek to enter by the narrow gate, that is very good advice. The statement Paul quoted above, I think could be understood as what we should expect about salvation from our point of view. We are hard-pressed to find the way of life . . . but for the assistance of divine grace (indeed, but for grace, it is utterly impossible to find the way); and yet that passage doesn’t explicitly reference grace, yet we dogmatically assert the assistance of grace at every step. So the passage in question does not, in fact, answer all the questions at all.

    Now, one can assemble quite a list of passages to support the, “narrow, few” argument, and I do not dismiss it. But I would say this: we have excellent reason to wrestle with this question, precisely because it goes to the question of God’s fundamental character: his is not only a Savior, he is an omnipotent one. And we need to do justice to the entirety of Scripture, including the Old Testament, in which God is portrayed as intimately involved in directing and prompting human choices.

    I’d say we should live as though the way is narrow, and therefore always cast our hopes on Jesus Christ and the Church he offers; but that doesn’t mean that God is not, in fact, far more generous and creative; it means, only, that that was not the instructions given to us.

  7. I’m sorry, a brief “P.S.” I should have said, I’d try to achieve precision; I now concede that I may have failed at sufficient clarity. My point is, let’s have charity, not a flame war.

  8. Fr. Martin: “Flame” war, huh? Good one.

    People who jump in with flame comments will be shown the door.

    I am sure that some folks will eventually also jump in with visions of souls falling into hell like snowflakes, and all that. Fine, if you must, but be decent about it.

    I admire your optimism, Reverend and Dear Father. I, on the other hand, have a strong inkling that there are, sadly, quite a few soul in hell. I do not wish that to be the case. Would that all could be saved! It may be that the number of souls in hell, though many in our mortal limits of understanding, are rather few in proportion of the number of souls God will have created by the end of things. I hope that to be the case. As much as it appeals to me, I cannot see my way to a universal salvation (of human beings) model. I have no evidence to the contrary, clearly. Perhaps I have spent enough time with Augustine now so that I have absorbed some of his pessimism in regard to human nature.

  9. Paul Haley says:

    There is no question in my mind from the scriptural passages quoting Jesus on this subject that (1) there is a hell and (2) many go there. Why? Because of our fallen human nature and our proclivity to sin because of original sin. There is also no doubt in my mind of God’s mercy and forgiveness and that through His Grace He can save many from the pains of hell. However, to say that God’s words in scripture were only meant as a caution is, I believe, stretching things a bit. Nor do I believe the private revelations of hell (to the children of Fatima,), for example, were meant only as a caution. We have many caution signs in life – on the highway for example, that seem to be routinely disregarded by many drivers. No, I believe that Christ’s words were a STOP sign – i.e., stop sinning or you may indeed wind up in hell. I say this meaning no disrespect to anyone with opposing views. These beliefs are mine and I try, failing many times, but try nonetheless to live by them.

  10. Well said, Paul. Indeed, I also believe that Christ’s words in scripture allow no other possibility than to believe that a person could choose hell, and probably (even maybe certainly ) some have.

    I don’t like to dwell on such things, but I’m sure it’s perfectly possible to go there. I’m trying not to go there, needless to say.

  11. Paul, Michigan:

    I, too, believe that we can choose hell.

    How many might end up in hell, as I say, is beyond my ken; I can make an argument for a lot of people in hell, as well as the possibility that, in the end, no human being ends up there — and obviously, everything in between.

    The key, dogmatic boundary to maintain is that hell exists and damnation is a genuine danger.

    Fr. Z:

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me there is no necessary contradiction between being pessimistic about humanity, and yet being optimistic about God.

    Maybe I misunderstand him, but Augustine also gives rise to an optimism — precisely because we have to attribute every aspect of our conversion to grace: grace precedes even our awareness of needing salvation, as well as every move toward God.

    Ergo, the more we emphasize the role of grace in this, the easier it is to conclude:

    (a) we all ought to go to hell, and we’re all headed there at rocket-speed;

    (b) But God is so expansive with love, he finds ways to work within our lives, our natures and our free wills to orient us toward him — and he has the whole of our lives in which to bring it about.

    But I concede, as I must:

    (c) We can, despite God’s efforts, choose hell and he respects that choice, regardless of what else he may think about it.

    Again, applying Augustine (if I read him right): a key work of grace is to raise us to where we can make a free choice; but for grace, our bondage to sin would render us incapable of freely calling out for God’s salvation.

    Yet it remains true that many labor under varying degrees of unfreedom. Classic moral theology recongizes this, of course, as a mitigating factor in evaluating culpability of sin. Every way we study the human psyche we confirm its labrynthine mystery, as Jeremiah observed long ago.

    So. . . the question arises, just when do we have a true, free choice?

    I dunno; I aim to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”

    But I do surmise, and assume, that God in his goodness, grants each soul some moment of sufficient freedom, when the true stakes become clear. Optimistically, I hope it comes for folks near the end, when they may be unable to communicate it to us with two feet in this world. Pessimistically, I concede for some (many?), they may have experienced it and refused it, and whether they receive a second moment, the outcome may not change.

  12. Andrew says:

    To me, personally, this question is important not so much because I might wish to quantify how many people wind up where, but because it is important to differentiate good from evil. Without such discernment one cannot get a grasp of what “goodness” might mean at all. If all is good – as our age would have it – then all is meaningless and goodness itself is indefinable and, I might add, Christ suffered in vain. His crucifixion would have been nothing but (horribile dictu) some sort of dramatic display. As it is, truth, freedom and goodness must be discerned by separating falsehood, licentiousness and malice. “All” would erase such discernment, but “many” will leave it intact.

  13. Paul Haley says:

    Fr. Fox,

    I very much like the following from your post: “So. . . the question arises, just when do we have a true, free choice? dunno; I aim to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”

    “But I do surmise, and assume, that God in his goodness, grants each soul some moment of sufficient freedom, when the true stakes become clear. Optimistically, I hope it comes for folks near the end, when they may be unable to communicate it to us with two feet in this world. Pessimistically, I concede for some (many?), they may have experienced it and refused it, and whether they receive a second moment, the outcome may not change.”

    The best example I can think of is the “good” thief on the cross but, parenthetically, I dunno if there is such a thing as a “good” thief in the literal sense. Anyway, Dismas had his choice at a point in time and he chose Christ with the statement: “Remember me, Lord, when you enter into your kingdom and the bone-chilling response of Our Lord as He said: This day, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” If this doesn’t send chills up and down the spine of any believer, I dunno what would. This, after the thief has presumably led a life of crime, and was being meted out the form of just punishment equivalent to his crimes. If it could happen to the thief on the cross, it could also have happened to Judas, had he dropped himself at the feet of Christ and begged forgiveness, even on the road to Calvary. The awesome power of Christ’s Mercy truly knows no bounds for one who is sincere in their repentance. That having been said, I don’t believe we should wait for such a moment but as you say, work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

    Pax Christi, Pater.

  14. And yet, Fr. Fox, it is possible to go to heaven and works, for Catholics, are not inconsequential. It does matter what we do. It’s why we confess. Think of your favorite saint.

    It is dishonest in the extreme to posit that the difference between a saint and a murderer, unrepentant to the end, is nothing. (Yes, yes, I know there is the matter of whether a person can really be “unrepentant to the end”). But I maintain we have that ability because of free will and the acceptance of grace.

    I am a convert and I know about Luther’s “dung heap”and his imputation of righteouslness, but I don’t believe it for a moment. It is possible to misunderstand Augustine, using his language and metaphors to teach error. In fact it’s probably true that this can be done to any system, thus Luther.

  15. To clarify: But I maintain we have that ability because of free will and the choice of whether or not to accept grace.

    Augustine was correct in that this is very near central to the Christian mystery. Scripture records that Christ talked about it frequently. It is a major theme of OT & NT.

  16. Joshua says:

    I prefer St. Thomas’ answer on this question (Commentary on the Sentences, book I, dist. 46 art. 1). There he answers, taking into account the reality of predestination (God does determine infallibly that the predestinate will freely accept His grace..), that God does not will all men to be saved if by that we mean that He wills it through predestination or without qualification. He wills all men to be saved insofar as they all have human nature. HE therefore wills their salvation equally…giving the precepts of the law, natural helps, etc. But then when He considers them insofar as they are either cooperating and preparing themselves for grace, or repugning it, He does not will all men to be saved. For it would be unjust to will that man save who rejects His grace until the end. Moreover, the fact that this man does cooperate with grace is because God helped him more and love him more. Those who God before the foundations of the world predestined will infallibly do what God wills them to do to be saved. As scripture says “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated”. The real mystery comes in with the fact that some are not predestined (and it is clear that is a fact if anyone goes to hell…and I think it certain, though not dogma of course, that Judas did). God could really save everyone. He doesn’t (that is a fact if you think that even Satan could have been elected by grace rather than St. Michael…Michael was better because God loved him more, not the other way around). So the difficulty is seeing how God wills the man to be saved whom He has reprobated.

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