Monday, January 29, 2018

Who’s Afraid of Predestination?

Not the Roman Catholic Church, who prays in her central prayer, the Roman Canon:
Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tua, quaesumus, Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari. 

We therefore beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, and command that we be rescued from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thine elect.
This petition is a liturgical distillation of the teaching of the Apostle Paul, as found especially in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1.
Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto himself: according to the purpose of his will … In whom we also are called by lot, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph 1:5, 1:11).

For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Rom 8:29–30).
Verifying yet again the Golden Axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, we find this truth perfectly enshrined in a number of places in the usus antiquior, such as the Dies Irae Sequence of the Requiem Mass, and in the following Secret from the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Pro nostrae servitutis augmento sacrificium tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus: ut, quod immeritis contulisti, propitius exsequaris.

May this sacrifice of praise that we offer to Thee, O Lord, be for an increase of our servitude [i.e., our service to Thee]: that what Thou hast begun without our merits Thou mayest mercifully bring to completion.
In what is perhaps the most beautiful of all such liturgical testimonies, the Postcommunion for the usus antiquior Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, a relatively recent addition from the 16th century (and incorporated into the general calendar in the 18th), reads thus:
Omnipotens æterne Deus, qui creasti et redemisti nos, respice propitius vota nostra: et sacrificium salutaris hostiæ, quod in honorem nominis Filii tui, Domini nostri Jesu Christi, majestati tuæ obtulimus, placido et benigno vultu suscipere digneris; ut gratia tua nobis infusa, sub glorioso nomine Jesu, æternæ prædestinationis titulo gaudeamus nomina nostra scripta esse in cælis.
O almighty and everlasting God Who didst create and redeem us, look graciously upon our prayer, and with a favourable and benign countenance deign to accept the sacrifice of the saving Victim, which we have offered to Thy Majesty in honour of the Name of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: that through the infusion of Thy grace we may rejoice that our names are written in heaven, under the glorious Name of Jesus, the pledge of eternal predestination.[1]
The doctrine of predestination (with varying accents and nuances) was taught without embarrassment by all the Fathers of the Church, and received its definitive account in Question 23 of the Prima Pars of the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the twentieth century, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange devoted much of his labor to explicating and defending the Angelic Doctor’s teaching on just this point, as, for example, in his excellent (if unimaginatively titled) book Predestination.

If anyone doubts that the Catholic Church has always taught and still teaches the doctrine of predestination — obviously, not an erroneous Protestant version of it, but the true notion — he may satisfy himself by consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 257, 600, 2012, 2782, and 2823. The Catechism deftly steers clear of the Dominican-Molinist controversy by merely repeating multiple times the statements of St. Paul, and adding only this gloss: “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he established his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace” (n. 600).

From the main portal of Notre Dame cathedral, Paris

Command that we be rescued from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thine elect. With this pair of entreaties, the Roman Canon repudiates the universalist mentality of our age, which assumes that men will be saved unless they conscientiously and egregiously reject God. On the contrary, the Canon embodies the truth of the Catholic Faith as taught by the Fathers, Doctors, and premodern Popes of the Church, for whom man, due to his inheritance of original sin, cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he dies and rises with Christ in baptism.

Without entering here into subtle exegesis of John 3, we can say as a matter of fact that the consensus of Catholic theologians from ancient times until the early twentieth century was that mankind is a massa damnata (“condemned crowd”) and that Christ came into the world to save sinners from the destruction due to our sins, inherited and actual. The sole path of salvation is to be clothed with Christ,[2] incorporated into His Mystical Body, and to die in a state of sanctifying grace. As Scott Hahn says in a lecture on the Gospel of John, “the history of salvation is also the history of damnation”: Christ came into the world for judgment, to cause separation by revealing the truth and exposing darkness.[3] This is why the Roman Martyrology carefully records not only the names of each martyr, but the names of their persecutors as well.

Moreover, in utter opposition to Pelagianism, the Church teaches that God, not man, takes the first step in the renewal of our life; that all our sufficiency is from Him (2 Cor 3:5); that no man comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44); that we become adopted sons of God by His predestinating purpose (Eph 1:5); that we persevere by His gift, not by our own efforts. In short, God must number us in the flock of His chosen ones; He knowingly and lovingly chooses us to be the “rational sheep” (as the Akathist hymn says) of His flock. He does not, as it were, happen to find us there in the sheepfold and express pleasant surprise; He brings us there and keeps us there.

All this the Roman Canon succinctly transmits in words as simple as they are sobering: Command that we be rescued from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thine elect.

But why is this doctrine important to us spiritually?

In modern times we are constantly told how good we are, how well-intentioned, and how much we are victims of our environment or upbringing, entitled to various compensations. We are reassured of the greatness of man, of his dignity and rights. But we are in sore danger of forgetting fundamental truths about our condition. We are fallen beings alienated from God, from our neighbors, even from our very selves. We have no rights to stand on before God; we are like “filthy rags,” as Isaiah says (Is 64:4). We are utterly dependent on the divine Mercy at every moment — for our very existence, for our conversion to good, for our repentance from evil, for our escape from damnation, and above all, for the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

We stand at the edge of an abyss of neverending misery into which we may fall at any moment by mortal sin, if our life is snuffed out before we have repented of it, or if the Lord does not, in His mercy, prevent us from falling or, after we have fallen, grant us the gift of repentance. “Lead us not into temptation…” Lead us not into the abyss. Command that we be rescued from eternal damnation. This is reality, as opposed to the shallow fantasy of egoism, the “broad path that leads to destruction,” with which our contemporary culture envelops us.

We stand, too, at the edge of an upward abyss, that of the neverending bliss of heaven, into which we are drawn up out of ourselves, in reverse gravity, to the supernatural grandeur of the sons of God. This, too, is a gift we could never have merited; Christ alone won it for us by shedding His Precious Blood upon the Cross, in the one supreme sacrifice that is made present at every offering of the Holy Mass. It is precisely on the verge of making this sacrifice newly present in our midst that we humbly beseech the Lord: Command that we be numbered among the flock of Thine elect. Number us, O Lord, with the good thief to whom Thou didst say: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”

The doctrine of predestination has as its positive spiritual effects a deep and abiding thanksgiving to the Lord for His mercies without number, since He died for us while we were yet His enemies, that we might become His friends; a profound humility at having been chosen by God for no beauty of our own but solely that He might make us beautiful in His sight; a sober watchfulness and earnestness, lest our names be erased from the Book of Life; and, most of all, a constant recourse to prayer, that we will be established more and more in Christ, and not in ourselves, for it is by “being made conformable to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29), and in no other way, that our predestination is actually accomplished.

In response to so great a mercy, the Church places the words of the Psalmist on the lips of her priests as they receive the Precious Blood, price of our souls:
What shall I render to the Lord for all the things that He hath rendered to me? I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord. Praising I will call upon the Lord, and I shall be saved from mine enemies.
It is therefore of immense importance for nourishing the right faith of the people that the doctrine of predestination, transmitted pure and entire in the Roman Canon, be present to priests in their celebration of the Mass and to the people in their participation in it.[4]


[1] In yet another display of theological “neutralization,” the Novus Ordo — from whose calendar the feast of the Holy Name had initially been purged by Paul VI, no doubt because it was a Baroque accretion, only to be replaced later under John Paul II as an “optional memorial” — politely trims down this postcommunion to an acceptable banality: “May the sacrificial gifts offered to your majesty, O Lord, to honor Christ's Name and which we have now received, fill us, we pray, with your abundant grace, so that we may come to rejoice that our names, too, are written in heaven.” The doctrine is there, but as if muffled beneath several layers of sterile cotton.

[2] Cf. Rom 13:14, Gal 3:27; cf. Mt 22:12.

[3] Cf. Jn 9:39; cf. Jn 3:16–21, 5:24–29; Lk 12:51.

[4] Although not intended to be the focus of this article, it surely ought to be disturbing from the point of view of lex orandi, lex credendi that the sole anaphora of the Western Church, prayed every day at every Mass from ancient times until the 1960s, was displaced by alternative Eucharistic prayers in 1970 — a novelty and rupture the magnitude of which had never been seen in the history of any liturgical rite. See Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., “From One Eucharistic Prayer to Many: How it Happened and Why,” first published in the Adoremus Bulletin 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6 (September, October, and November 1996). Fr. Cassian quotes an Italian liturgist on the Roman Canon: “its use today is so minimal as to be statistically irrelevant.” (This was more true of the nineties than it is today, when we are enjoying some fruits of Benedict XVI's pontificate.) This rupture best illustrates the untenability of asserting that the usus antiquior and the usus recentior are merely two versions of the same thing, namely, the Roman Rite. It makes little difference that the passages from Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 are contained in the new lectionary (e.g., Weds of week 30 per annum, year I; 17th Sunday per annum, Year A; Thurs of week 28 per annum, year II; Immaculate Conception, 2nd reading), since readings come and go, like birds at a bird-feeder, whereas the danger of damnation and the divine mercy of predestination are woven into the very fabric of the traditional Roman rite. Moreover, most of the prayers that point to predestination in the usus antiquior have been either removed or toned down in the usus recentior, so that it would be much more difficult to establish that the revised liturgy teaches clearly and unambiguously this Scriptural and traditional doctrine.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: