Do Some Church Teachings Make Us Doubt Divine Mercy?

To begin with, some apologies to the readers of this Q & A column. Due to family emergencies and a dose of sheer exhaustion, I have fallen way behind in answering Divine Mercy questions and correspondence. I am sorry that some of you have had to wait so long - months, in some cases - to see the promised answer to your question appear online. I now have a massive backlog of questions. Please just keep my family and me in your prayers, and I am sure the Lord will help me get caught up in His good time.

A man named Lee sent me this letter back in November, and he has been waiting patiently for me to respond to the second half of it, which reads as follows:

I have terrifying thoughts that God does not love everyone - that He abandons some - and I get fixated on difficult passages in Scripture and in the teachings of some of the saints. For example, I worry about those seemingly harsh words about the fate of Judas and can't help thinking that his regret would have produced true repentance. If, after reaching the point of regret, he had an encounter with Jesus and saw His love and forgiveness, surely he would have yielded. I know we can't know about that, but what troubles me is those words about it being better for him if he had never been born. It undermines my confidence in what [my pastor] told me, and I start to have a diminished view of the extent of God's love. I know how bad I am, and I always think it's possible for me to do something that would put me beyond God's willingness to rescue me. In the end, I think the only love we could be safe with is one that never gives up. That transforms us and makes us able to respond. I want it to be true that no one will ever be spurned by God - that the only barrier to our salvation would lie with us, if we ultimately rejected the love that is offered endlessly to all of us.

But then I come to the tradition growing out of St. Augustine and the ideas that have developed about, to paraphrase (perhaps unfairly), God's seemingly half-hearted will for all to be saved, i.e., that He doesn't give to all the necessary graces [to be saved], and effectively abandons them. It might all be very clever theology, but if a human person acted like they would be like the man who says to the needy, "I wish you well," without lifting a finger to help them. I can't reconcile that with the all-loving God. Why have even great saints had these ideas? They leave me cold. But we can't deny that theses notions about God exist, and have come from loving people who must surely have prayed and meditated before writing their works. I can't understand it. This really troubles me, and erodes my ability to love God and trust myself to Him. If He is like that, I don't like Him. I can (and do) only fear Him.

I want to tell you also that my second daughter was stillborn and, at that time, I found out that the Church had a different funeral service for unbaptised infants. The same Church that told me God is perfect love didn't have the confidence of its own teaching and offered this mealy-mouthed affair in which it is uncertain whether God would welcome my little child with open arms. I am deeply hurt by this. How is it compatible with trust in mercy and love? What do we really believe?

Thanks for your honesty, Lee. There may be other readers of this column who share some of these concerns, and so I will try to take the issues you have raised, one at a time, and provide you with some clarifications, and, I hope, some reassurance.

First, I do not know when your second daughter was stillborn, what rite was used at her funeral, and whether that particular funeral rite is still in use in the Church, so I am unable to respond to that cause of your hurt. Still, I think I can clarify for you the Church's teaching regarding the fate of children who die before being baptized. In a nutshell, the Catholic Church has never had any doubt of God's loving care for infants who die in that state.

Furthermore, the Church's magisterium has certainly never taught that God lacks loving care for them, for she always refused to endorse St. Augustine's speculation that because they never received baptismal grace, such children must suffer "a very mild form of damnation." What the Church is not sure about is what kind of eternal destiny God's loving care has prepared for these children. And she has never defined that mystery for good reason: because it was not clearly revealed to her through Holy Scripture and the apostolic tradition. Some medieval theologians speculated that, since infants who died before being baptized had never received baptismal grace, they could not proceed to the beatific vision in heaven; thus, our heavenly Father, out of His compassion for them, must have prepared for them a state of natural happiness instead where they would live forever, free from sorrow and sadness and suffering of any kind. They called this state "limbo." This view became very popular among theologians for many centuries, but the Church never definitively endorsed it. In recent years the Church's doctrinal authorities have re-examined this issue, and concluded that the theory of "limbo" is possibly, but not probably, true. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points us in a different direction in entry 1261:

As regards children who die without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children who caused Him to say: "Let the children come to Me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

Secondly, with regard to your concerns about those saints who have taught that God does not give to everyone the graces they need for salvation, here again, the teachings of St. Augustine may be the problem. It is sometimes hard to see how some of St. Augustine's speculations on salvation and predestination fit with our faith in the merciful love of God for everyone (and I discussed this in depth in my recent book for Marian Press, Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI). On the other hand, it is also easy to misunderstand what he wrote on these matters (which is one reason I revised the chapter on St. Augustine for the second edition of that same book: because I wanted to give readers the chance to come to a better understanding of every aspect of his thought).

Saint Augustine's views on salvation are often confused with those of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Calvin taught that from all eternity, God elects some souls for salvation, choosing to give only to them the grace that leads to eternal life. Others He chooses to "pass by" with His saving grace, leaving them to inevitable, eternal damnation. He (allegedly) does this to manifest His attributes of mercy and wrath in the world, so that He might be glorified in His creatures. According to Calvin, God's saving grace will certainly and infallibly bring to salvation those on whom He bestows it. In other words, God's saving grace is irresistible: Human freewill has no place in the process of salvation, for God is sovereign over all. Those not elected by Him to receive the grace of salvation have no right to complain, for they only receive the eternal punishment they deserve for their sins. They glorify God by being objects of His wrath. Those elected by God to receive the grace of salvation have no right to boast, because their salvation is none of their doing; it is an act of God's sovereign will, and they are saved by grace alone. They glorify Him by being objects of His mercy. The Calvinists liked to point to Romans 9:11-24, and Ephesians 2:8 to justify their claims.

The Catholic Church condemned Calvinist teaching on salvation and predestination at the ecumenical Council of Trent in the 16th century. First of all, the Church refused to interpret those difficult Scripture passages cited by the Calvinists in a way that would contradict many other passages where the Bible clearly states that God loves everyone and desires all people to be saved (e.g., see Ps 145:9, Ez 33:11, Jn 3:16, Rom 11:32, I Tim 2:4, and 2 Pet 3:9). Secondly, it is not necessary for God to manifest His attribute of "wrath" in order to be glorified in His creatures. God's wrath is only His attribute of "justice" in so far as it is directed toward stubbornly unrepentant sinners; but His attribute of justice is also glorified when, on the basis of the merits of the Passion of His Son, He pours out His gracious, saving help on everyone; and besides, if He is really a God of love and mercy, surely He would provide graces sufficient to enable everyone to come to repentance and forgiveness, if only they would be willing to surrender to it. What kind of Good Shepherd would deliberately refuse to provide such help for many of His lost sheep? Not only that, what kind of God would irresistibly compel a response of love from some of His children? Love as we know it always respects the freedom of the beloved (e.g., Robots and puppets on a string cannot "love." Real love must be a free response).

Thus, the Catholic Church rejected Calvinist teaching that confuses, limits, and narrows God's love so drastically. It sounds like this is the teaching that you have heard about, Lee, and you are right to be repulsed by it. But it is not exactly the teaching of St. Augustine.

Saint Augustine basically taught that God does, indeed, give only to some, His elect, and not to all, the grace that leads to salvation, but we do not know on what basis God in His wisdom makes this choice. It is an unfathomable mystery (Sermon 27,7). All we know is that God is infinitely merciful and just in all that He does. Saint Augustine wrote: "Grace cannot be unjust, nor can justice be cruel" (The City of God, 12, 27).

God's saving grace is "efficacious," St. Augustine claims, in that it will unfailingly bring to salvation all those upon whom God bestows it. However, another mystery here, according to St. Augustine, is that this grace does not violate the freewill of those to whom He gives it. Somehow, it unfailingly empowers the will of the elect to come to faith and repentance, but does not compel them to do so. Saint Augustine left this all as something of a paradox, as did St. Thomas Aquinas, who largely followed his lead on these doctrines.

The Church permits us to hold St. Augustine's views on these mysteries, but does not require us to accept them. In fact, there are two other views open to Catholic theologians on all this, Lee, and I will bet that one of these will be more palatable to you.

The view of St. Francis De Sales, and some of those in the Jesuit tradition, is that God only "elects" or "predestines" some souls for salvation in the sense that, from eternity, He foresees who will freely surrender to His saving grace, which He intends to pour out upon all. God pours out on all souls graces sufficient to lead them to salvation, if only they will cooperate with them. These graces enable them to respond to God with repentance and faith, but do not irresistibly cause them to do so. If souls freely cooperate with God's gracious help by coming to faith and to repentance for their sins, and if, with the help of His grace, they live out their faith in works of love, they will attain eternal life in heaven. Proponents of this view like to cite Bible passages such as Romans 8:28-29, and Ephesians 1:4-5. This is certainly the most popular view of these matters in the Church today. It's a view that clearly manifests the merciful love of God for all.

Then there is the "in-between" sort of view of those in the Jesuit tradition known as the "Congruists." They held that God does, indeed, only give His special, saving grace to some (the elect) and not to others: He gives it only to those whom He foresees will actually, freely cooperate with it if He gave it to them. In other words, God knows not only the past, the present, and the future: He also knows what people would do in every possible circumstance (see Mt 11:20-24, and Lk 10:12-15). Thus, He knows what you and I would do with special graces if He gave them to us. He pours out general gracious help and blessings upon all people, but the special grace that actually leads to salvation He gives only to those whom He foresees will not waste it! In that sense and in that sense only they are "predestined" to salvation while others are "passed by" for good reason.

Well, Lee, you can see that these are very deep matters: matters so deep, in fact, that the Church has never presumed fully to define the mysteries of election and salvation. Your inclinations on these matters, however, as expressed in your letter, are fully within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy, as established by the Church's magisterium, and fully compatible with our faith in God's merciful love for all who are willing to receive it.

As for the fate of Judas Iscariot, it may interest you to know that the Church's magisterium has never taught that Judas is definitely in hell. Christ's words about it being better for him if he had never been born certainly make it likely that he is, but it is also at least possible that our Lord was using hyperbole here - exaggerating to make a point (as He did many times, e.g., advising people to pluck out their eyes rather than risk eternal loss). If Judas was lost in the end, it would not be because he betrayed Jesus - good heavens, we all do that to some extent, in ways great or ways small! Rather, it would be because he despaired of God's forgiveness and went out and hung himself. He held his sins to be greater than the merciful love of God, when our Savior's whole ministry on earth (of which Judas was an eye and ear witness!), was meant to show us just the opposite! As Jesus said to St. Faustina:

My mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world. ... I never reject a contrite heart. ... Sooner would heaven and earth turn into nothingness than would My mercy not embrace a trusting soul (Diary of St. Faustina, 1485, and 1777).

Lee, you hope and pray for a divine and merciful love that "never gives up" on us, so that "the only barrier to our salvation would lie with us, if we ultimately rejected the love that is offered endlessly to all of us." You are right: That is the only barrier. Some people are eternally lost, not because God gave up on them, but because they irrevocably gave up trusting in Him.

Next week: "If God Is So Merciful, Why Is There A Hell?"

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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