"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Salvation at the golden mean

Consider the following two propositions:

(1) Only those who, by the time they die, have freely and explicitly put their faith in Christ are saved.

(2) Only those who, by the time they die, have freely and explicitly rejected Christ are damned.

For want of better terms, let's call (1) the "rigorist" position and (2) the "laxist" position. Rigorism and laxism have each had their adherents; in this age of relativism and its religious correlate, "indifferentism," (2) seems to have many adherents among Catholics. Not all such Catholics would even consider themselves "progressives." But on any authentically Catholic account, both (1) and (2) must be deemed false; the truth must lie somewhere in between, at a golden mean between rigorism and laxism. I don't know that we can state that mean accurately, and I don't even know whether anybody has tried. But it's worth a try, if only to stifle some useless controversies. To that end, first let's dispose of the extremes.

(1) is false because, for one thing, it doesn't take account of what the Church says happens to people who die after valid baptism but before having had the opportunity to make morally significant choices. It is simply taken for granted in the ordinary teaching of the Church that all such "infants" are saved, which means they will inevitably share the bliss of the divine life forever. So if you have a child whom you baptized but who died in infancy, feel free to ask for their prayers. Or if your baptized child is so developmentally disabled that they might never be able to attain true moral responsibility, worrying about their salvation is certainly less justified than worrying about those of "normal" children. It's probably less justified than worrying about your own; if you don't worry about the latter, you should—at least at some stage.

The faith in virtue of which such "infants" are saved is vicarious. Thus the faith that valid baptism requires is credited to the recipients in virtue of that of adult Christians who take responsibility for them. Of course that doesn't apply in the case of adults who die without ever having been in a position to make an informed choice for Christ. That's why Pius XII, after a long period of doctrinal development, adopted the idea of a possible "baptism of implicit desire" for such people. Fr. Leonard Feeney, a Boston Jesuit beloved by many traditionalists, didn't like that idea at all; in fact, he denounced it as heretical. But as evidenced by a footnote in Lumen Gentium §16, the Fathers of Vatican II liked it and thought it orthodox. And of course there's a question recently brought to the fore by the Vatican's statements about limbo: can "infants" who have died without baptism be saved, perhaps by vicarious baptism of desire? I and others would say yes, but that answer raises trad hackles; after all, limbo was not a long-popular theologoumenon for nothing. I shall return to that issue as I seek to close in on the golden mean.

(2) is false because the evidence is overwhelming that people can become confirmed in true evil, and die in it, without knowing about Christ—or at least without knowing enough about Christ to make an informed and explicit choice one way or the other. That, after all, is why he came to save us, and why it is an imperative of love to preach the Gospel "to all nations." Indeed, the fact in question is part of the evidence for the doctrine of original sin. According to that doctrine, we are each (the usual two exceptions being understood) conceived in a state of alienation from God for which we are not personally culpable, but which entails certain disorders that make some-or-other actual sin inevitable once free choice becomes possible. To sin is to disobey God and act as his enemy; to die unrepentant, and thus in a state of enmity with God, is to be damned, regardless of how ignorant of revealed truth one may be. And each of us who can make choices would end up damned were it not for the unmerited divine grace won for us by the Pasch of Christ. It may be that there would be no possibility of damnation without the possibility of salvation; but that doesn't affect the fundamental point, which doesn't even require knowledge of divine revelation.

As a pointer to the golden mean, now consider this: just as it's possible to be damned without knowing Christ enough to make an informed and explicit choice to reject him, some are saved without knowing Christ enough to make an informed and explicit choice to put one's faith in him. As I've already implied, all that is taken for granted by the ordinary teaching of the Church, even though we don't know exactly who falls into either category, other than infants who die baptized. The only live question is this: whatever may be necessary for an individual's salvation, must it be supplied by the time they die?

A clear and doctrinally binding answer to that question would go a long way to specifying the golden mean. But unlike most trads, I don't think there is such an answer. There are more or less plausible speculations at the margins.
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