The Catholic Perspective VI: Last things

And now, the conclusion.

Being towards judgement

We have seen that the mind is less the ultimate bestower of meaning than the ultimate locus of ambiguity.  Everyone is a mix of good and evil; even my good deeds are vitiated by resentment or expectation of reward.  My very freedom traps me in ambiguity by making it impossible for me to make an irrevocable choice for obedience to God.  To the extent that I control myself enough to choose good today, to that same extent it will be in my power to repudiate good tomorrow.

Once again, the rescue must be to appropriate meaning from without.  God it was Who, through the sacrament of marriage, allowed my life to have  an overall plot. God it will be Who will give my life an overall resolution.  At the end of life, or so Catholics believe, each soul will be judged, and at that moment that life’s definitive truth–as a story of transformation in Christ or rebellion to the end–will be established.  Death and judgement are the inescapable horizon, marking, as death does for atheists, each life as finite, contingent, and individual.  Each of us must suffer his own death and have rendered his own personal judgment.  However, we are assured that Jesus has gone before us and by his great sacrifice offered salvation to all.

This is not to say that all will ultimately be saved.  For most of the Church’s history, the assumption has been that the judgment of most is one of damnation.  The Catholic attitude thus tends to be different from the Protestant “assurance of salvation”.  A Catholic, knowing his own inner indeterminacy and freedom to reject God, expects no such assurance.  After all, even if I am in a state of grace now, what’s to stop me from choosing mortal sin tomorrow?  I can be sure of God’s continued assistance, but not that I won’t thwart it.  True, from God’s atemporal perspective, each man is either predestined or reprobate.  However, this is not a perspective we can share until death.  Human life is, by its nature, the realm of time, uncertainty (“fear and trembling”), and freedom.

The ascent of Mount Purgatory

Yet life’s resolution is more than an external judgment. Jesus Christ said that even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11).  To really vanquish sin and erase its hold, the soul must be internally purged and cleansed; the seed of charity in it must permeate and reorder the whole.  The saints and martyrs show us what souls ordered by charity can do.  Many willingly endured ostracism, poverty, torture, mutilation, and death out of loyalty to God.  Reading their stories, I wonder whether I too would have chosen to endure such things if put in their situations.  It would be nice to think so, but I don’t sense any great reserves of courage in me.  I can hope (and am commanded to pray) that God will deliver me while on Earth from intolerable temptations.  However, I cannot hope (and nor should I really want to) that this will mean getting into heaven “on the cheap” with my weak character and petty sinfulness intact.  Only souls that would endure unimaginable tortures rather than turn away from God are capable of beatitude.  And yet we know that such virtue does not come cheaply.

Dante presents a gripping image of Purgatory as a vast mountain whose ascent represents the rectification of the soul, culminating in the recovery of original innocence.  The souls in Purgatory undergo penances as extreme as the punishments in hell, but with the crucial difference that they are undertaken willingly and in a spirit of hope.  In Dante’s telling, the souls of the Church Suffering display an almost superhuman single-mindedness toward their penances; so perhaps shall it someday be with us.  Today I know myself to be very weak, barely on God’s side at all. How many eons in Purgatory might it take to forge in me the soul of a saint?  Yet every Catholic knows that God has the power to make a saint out of anyone, and that He will settle for nothing less.

4 Responses

  1. CS Lewis has remarked that the Dominical sayings on the question of population of hell are addressed to the will and not to the intellect.

    That is, the Lord is uninterested in answering the quantitative question. He wants us to focus on OUR salvation and not to get distracted in quantitative questions.

    Even otherwise, your statement ” For most of the Church’s history, the assumption has been that the judgment of most is one of damnation.” is misleading and on such a crucial point, you should have given greater care, in particular when you are intending to give “Catholic Perspective”.

  2. How is it misleading? It certainly seems to me that this was the widespread if often unspoken assumption. Perhaps things shifted in the later Middle Ages as purgatory came to occupy a larger space in the public consciousness. In any event, what is clear is that the judgement is not a formality test which only extraordinary vice can cause one to fail.

  3. I think you misinterpret the point of hellfire sermons. They are directed to the will, not to the intellect. That is, they should motivate you to focus on your possible damnation, and they are not intended to excite idle curiousity about the relative population of hell and heaven.

    Recently, you wrote a post
    ” having children is no longer a good thing in today’s world, because of the near certainty that they will be corrupted and never go to heaven. If anything, the evidence for this view has grown even stronger than before. As a calculation, an estimate of probabilities and expected outcome, I don’t see the flaw in this argument, even though I would very much like to. However, I intuitively know that it must be wrong, because it’s crazy.”

    I agree with the last line but I also wonder about this “calculation, an estimate of probabilities and expected outcome”. How did you do these estimates?

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