Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Catholic Assurance of Salvation

"Can a Catholic Enjoy Assurance of Salvation?" - so we asked at our November session of Liturgy & Lager led by Andrew Preslar. Andrew argued (convincingly) that we indeed can. I would recommend his summary of the question (as linked to above) and Dr. Judisch's longer post on the same topic here.

But Andrew's conclusions caused some controversy that evening and one of the attendants protested (and I don't mean subtly). The Catholic's knee jerk reaction (especially those of us who are more prone to polemics) is quite understandable given the history of this issue. But it seems to me that for a Catholic to outright reject "assurance" of any kind is a false dilemma if we take a moment to clear away the fog.

The fallacy is saying that one of the following two extremes must be true:

1. A Christian may have "certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error" (to include the absolute confidence that one would never fall from grace in the same way that 2 and 2 will never equal 5).

2. A Christian must be absolutely agnostic regarding his or her salvation (e.g. Mother Theresa, nearing the end of her earthly life, would be no more certain that she was heaven-bound than hell-bound).

The Catholic knee jerk reaction would amount to this false dilemma it seems. Yet if there are degrees in between those two extremes, then we must say that assurance of some kind is permissible and even expected of a Catholic.

Catholic theology, like good Protestant theology, allows and yes... demands some assurance of salvation not as part of a spiritual self evaluation but as part of proper soteriology. Our salvation is given freely therefore our assurance is in Him who gives. What uncertainty exists is not a denial of the sacramental efficacy (the sacraments effect not affect) but the perpetual humility of the Christian who depends fully on God's grace.


Giovanni A. Cattaneo said...

I see what you are saying but what you are discriving is the following.

I am assured of salvation because I am assured of the salvific qualities of my savior. Which would be correct.

However assurance in this instance is believing that you are in perfect harmony with God's plan, that you are in everyway part of the elect. In other words saying that you know the will of God. No man can make such a claim, and to do so is to place your self at the same level as God.

The best a Catholic can come is to hope for his salvation. As St. Paul says to "hope in love."

Gretchen said...

Another thought-provoking post, Tim. I don't think it is presumptuous to believe that God would have us saved, as opposed to damned. Just pondering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is enough to convince me that God would do just about anything to get us saved. We have to cooperate with that, of course.

I like Lewis' sense of it: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

Humility is very important, of course, for it keeps us from making decisions that would draw us closer to hell rather than heaven. But this idea that our earthly life is a limbo in which we have no idea where we'll end up reminds me of the doctrine of predestination.

Of course, all of the above could be my Protestant roots showing!

Rene'e said...

This question causes one to reflect upon their own lives and their own sins. As for me personally in regards to Assurance of Salvation, I hope to die in a state of Grace. So in this sense I agree with Giovanni.

The one assurance I do feel certain about is Purgatory. Thank God for purgatory, I am most definitely going to spend some time in that particular state.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Giovanni, thanks for dropping by. I certainly did not provide an adequate argument for the type of assurance that I think Catholics are encouraged to have but the two posts I linked to should provide that argument.

We all agree that in the above dilemma, 1 is clearly not an option for Catholics (per Trent's canons on justification). But I think 2 is absurd. I agree with you and Renee that we do hold on to hope but the Catholic hope is not one in which we close our eyes and cross our fingers. It is a hope with confidence and therefore we have a level of assurance based in hope (which is itself a virtue).

See Aquinas on the subject here.

Notice that Aquinas defends the objection that 'there is no certainty in that which may fail'. This is significant given that both Aquinas and the Catholic Church teach that you may lose your salvation (fail).

Gretchen - maybe its my Protestant roots too but I agree with you!

Kenny said...

I'm way out of my area of expertise here (so I won't barrage you with philosophy terms this time), but if I remember correctly, the debate during the Reformation on this issue was formed by a very particular problem: according to Catholic doctrine (or, at least, a common belief among Catholics at that time - I'm not sure which) the sacraments were invalid if the officiant did not administer them in good faith. But anyone who had not received valid sacraments was not saved. So, since you cannot tell for certain if the officiant is sincere, you cannot know whether you are saved nor can you do anything to fix the situation.

I think it is safe to say that both Catholics and Protestants reject this line of thought today, though I'm not clear on exactly how the Catholic understanding was revised/clarified to deal with this situation.

Tim A. Troutman said...


There might have been some confusion among individual Catholics and in that way it may have been an issue but that was never a doctrine of the Church. Aquinas had already dealt with that question here 300 years before the Reformation.

What Aquinas does deny is that man can know whether or not he is in a state of grace (see here).

Kenny said...

Yes, that segment from Aquinas certainly does seem to adequately address precisely this point. I was thinking of some Protestant confession or other I had read - perhaps The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord - The Holy Supper (scroll down to section 24), which refers to "questions about which at the present time men are disturbed, as, for instance, whether a wicked priest can administer and distribute the Sacrament." But I guess I don't know which people were confused about that. It may have been some individual Catholics or Lutherans, or, given the time and circumstances under which this was published, it may have been a breakaway sect of Lutherans.

Andrew Preslar said...

I think that it is quite understandable, although incorrect, to conflate
"knowing that one is in a state of grace" with "having assurance of personal salvation." The concepts involved are intimately related in many ways, thus the difficulty of making the distinction.

Another difficulty here is that two different ways of speaking about salvation are being employeed. This is purposeful, but not unproblematic. These ways of speaking are not normally considered together at all. "Being in a state of grace" is supposedly Papist-lingo, and "having assurance of personal salvation" is commonly considered to be Protty-talk.

There is surely much to consider and to debate concerning this important matter. Thanks for staking out the ground a bit.