The Pain of Hell

Is God a torturer?

A difficulty some persons have with the doctrine of hell is the impression that hell implies vengeance and torture, which are incompatible with loving God. It is of course quite understandable that the more caution humans are in establishing punishments, the less they look at punishment as a deterrence and the more they look at it as a corrective for criminals, the harder it will be for them to understand an eternal punishment that is only employed in order to keep men from sin and evil through fear of this punishment.

The classical understanding of the punishment and pain of hell, since the middle ages and to some extent in the Father so of the Church (although the modern view of the pain of hell also finds a basis in some patristic thought) is more or less: God wills all human beings to come to him, to love him and their neighbor, and thereby to attain their own happiness. Now, in order to love, one must forego works that contradict this love; hence, to motivate men to withdraw from these evil deeds, God established the eternal separation from him and the pain of hell as punishment for works that fundamentally contradict love. The understanding of the fire of hell as a material, physical fire corresponds well to this understanding of hell, although this understanding of hell's punishment is not essentially connected with the notion of material fire.

Some modern theologians (e.g., Rahner, Greshake, Kehl, quite possibly Ratzinger) are of the opinion that this "classical" understanding of hell can no longer be maintained, that this understanding of hell is incompatible with a God who is merciful love. If God now does everything out of love, even in relation to sinners, we cannot say that suddenly after their death God no longer acts towards sinners out of love, but only or at any rate decisively out of justice. These theologians then understand the punishment of sin as an innate consequence of guilt, not as something more added by God as a disincentive to sin. That does not inflict pain on the sinner as a punishment. The punishment is the suffering inherent in sin, the ultimately unavoidable consequence of turning away from God, the source of goodness and of peace. Sin is a rejection of love. Hell is the fixation in this unloving state. But without love a person must finally be unhappy and suffer.

Several things speak in favor of this hypothesis, of this understanding of hell. In the Christian tradition we definitely do find the thought that sins brings its own punishment with it. We also very often find the thought the God, in his mercy, punishes sinners in hell less than they deserve. But if God in his mercy punishes sinners less than they deserve, it is plausible or even probable that he has not planned more punishment for hell than necessary or appropriate in order to discourage people from sinning. Hence, if the suffering inherent in sin can be appropriately described with the words that Scripture uses, such as fire, the worm, eternal destruction, and so on, than this punishment suffices as a deterring warning from sin, and it is probably that God brings about no further pain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also tends somewhat in this direction. It has nothing to say directly to what was traditionally called the poena sensus (the sensible or experienced pain/punishment of hell, in contrast to the punishment that consisted in a privation, in not enjoying God [poena damni]). It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (n. 1035) But other than by the use of the term "chief punishment" doesn't give even an hint that there is any other punishment. The phrasing does not seem to exclude the view that the principal punishment consists in separation from God, while other punishment consists in the experience of loss and loneliness subsequent upon this voluntary separation. It seems to leave open both the classical and the modern view.

Speaking about the eternal punishment of hell and the temporal punishment of purgatory, the Catechism says, "These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." (CCC 1472) Pope John Paul the second says something quite similar, but substitutes "punishment" (castigo) for "vengeance" (vendetta): "Man… can unfortunately choose to reject [God's] love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life…. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." (General Audience, July 28, 1999).

On the other hand, whatever one thinks of this hypothesis of modern theologians, it would be a mistake to think that we can readily reject as impossible the classical understanding, held by many fathers and doctors of the Church. It is a mistake to suppose that God must act as we would act if we were entrusted with the rule of the universe and other human beings. It may be that the classic understanding of hell cannot be entirely understandable from a human perspective. This would not, however, immediately imply that this understanding is false. It could also be a sign of our very limited insight into the providence, love, and justice of God. As noted, the Catechism is rather careful on this question. It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs", (n. 1035) suggesting another punishment besides this punishment, but maintaining silence on the question of what exactly this is.

Pastoral Recommendations For the Year of Faith

The Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, published a Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, giving suggestions for some things that could be done on the level of the world-wide Church, on the level of episcopal conferences and dioceses, and on the level of parish and other communities to enter more deeply into this Year, to aid the encounter with Christ through authentic witnesses to faith, and the ever-greater understanding of its contents. Among other things, it suggests various steps that could be taken on these levels to help the Catechism of the Catholic Church better fulfill its task of serving the faith.

Read the full document: Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith

Living Without Mortal Sin?

Do some persons live and die without ever committing any mortal sins? Recently Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ("Fr. Z") stated that "there is only one woman ever who" was "entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”. Despite correction by several commentators, he continued to defend his claim, putting forth the arguments that (1) one cannot prove the absence of mortal sin (since God alone knows the heart), (2) "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:10), and (3) "by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin."

In the past I have also heard somewhat similar opinions from other sources. So, a few remarks on the matter:

(1) The burden is on the one who claims that a person who has done wrong to prove it. If someone claims that St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, committed a mortal sin, it is up to the one who claims this to prove it. It will not do to say "prove that it's not so!" Granted one cannot directly prove that St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, etc., never committed a mortal sin, it surely lies on the one who accuses them of having committed mortal sin to prove it. To claim as a fact that someone committed grave evil is objectively slanderous unless one has some way of being sure that they did so. Now Fr. Z seems to suggest having a solid basis for making this claim in the doctrine that grace is a gratuitous gift (we can't know with the certainty of faith if we are in the state of grace), and that we all sin (1 John 1:10). However, and here lies the problem, the saints and doctors of the Church do not agree with him in his interpretation of these doctrines and their implications.

(2) From the Fathers through the Council of Trent and beyond, the assumption is that some, but not all, fall into sin after baptism. It is clear that grace suffices to in fact persevere a substantial length, and indeed an entire life, without sin. It may be a minority, but it is supposed to be at least some.

I quote also St. Thomas Aquinas, responding to an objection that grace cannot be a habit in the soul, since a habit is something stable and permanent, whereas grace is easily lost, since it is lost through a single act of mortal sin: "Although grace is lost by one act of mortal sin, it is not easily lost, because it is not easy for someone who has grace to do such an act, on account of his inclination to the opposite action, as the Philosopher says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for a just man to do unjust deeds." (De veritate q. 27, a. 1, ad 9). If mortal sins are not frequent in all Christians, then you can be sure that some have died without committing any mortal sins (since some die a few years after reaching the age of reason, some a single year afterwards, some a few months afterwards, etc.), unless, far from positing the traditional providence of God that preserves some people from any mortal sin ("caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." Wis 4:11), one posits a very special providence of God seeing to it that everyone other than Mary falls into mortal sin, a rather problematic hypothesis.

(3) Moreover, we have positive, and strong evidence that individual persons have lived without committing any mortal sin: certain persons, who have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, have testified that other persons (also later canonized as saints by the Catholic Church) lived and died without committing any mortal sin. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine testified it of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Bosco testified it of St. Dominic Savio. This view of St. Aloysius life is moreover affirmed by the liturgy itself, in which we pray, "O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant, through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence." The implication of this prayer is that St. Aloysius preserved baptismal innocence, and that the vast majority of persons did not. (Updated correction: Or the prayer may mean by "innocence" that he committed not only no mortal sin, but also none or next to none fully deliberate venial sin; then the implication would be that the vast majority of persons have committed at least some fully deliberate venial sin.)

Leaving aside the theological and rational arguments (which are in favor of some living and dying without committing mortal sin), if one has to choose between St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Bosco's, and the Roman liturgy's view, and the personal interpretation of another individual, one would be wise to side with the saints and with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

(4) Regarding St. John's statement that "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" (1 John 1:10), I simply recall his own statement in the same epistle, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there are some sins that are not mortal," as well as "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)". The sins we are commit, the "daily sins" (St. Augustine), are in most cases venial sins, and John is including these when talking about sin when he says "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar."

(5) Regarding original sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly that original sin does not have the character of personal guilt in us, nor is it "committed" by us: "[Original sin] is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 404-405)"

In any event, even if one could theoretically call original sin "mortal sin" by analogy, that is not the traditional Catholic usage of "mortal sin" (Otherwise it would be senseless to ask, for instance, whether someone could be in original sin and venial sin, without mortal sin, as St. Thomas Aquinas does), nor is it the usage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

To sum up, the testimony of the saints and of the Church is that grace can and does indeed preserve some people (and not just the Blessed Virgin Mary) from all mortal sin, and also points out some concrete saints whom grace has so preserved from mortal sin throughout their lives.

Homily for St. Stephen

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ! The day before yesterday, in the evening, and yesterday we celebrated Christmas, the feast of Jesus' birth. We contemplated the little child in the crib, sung "silent night", heard the tidings of peace for the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus' warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name's sake. Is there a connection between Christmas and the martyr Stephen? How are we to understand this? Does it mean we shouldn't take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously? It is a nice story, but the reality is different…?

This interpretation would be incorrect. The Church's long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it, and to manifest more clearly an important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Jesus became man, became a child, so that he might also find a place in our hearts. We say that visually presented here, where the Christ child is lying in the heart… [regards the scene in the Church Cyrill and Method]. We fully understand Jesus' birth only in light of his being born in man's heart, in our heart. So after Christmas, the birth of the small Jesus, we contemplate also the birth of the Church, the Church as a child.

Now when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect. It really makes a difference whether we let him in or not. When he who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life. We see that in St. Stephen's life. As one of the first deacons he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the "service of love" to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, had spoken more carefully about Jesus, he would not have been stoned, he could have continued to preach Jesus, he could have done more good….
But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ's message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

St. Stephen is an example to us of faithfulness to Jesus, an example of holding fast to the truth in love, of the way we all should and want to go. This way is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating too much in one or the other direction: to give up truth for the sake of love, or to give up love for the sake of truth. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant, must abandon the claim to truth, must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that leads to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth in steadfast conviction and yet without violence, but in love and in self-giving.

Let us pray to Jesus, who came into this world as a child, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family, in our workplace, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing and loving manner, as St. Stephen did. Amen.

Summer Theology Program in Italy, 2012

The second summer program run by the Saint Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies will take place again in Norcia, Italy,  from June 18 to June 30, 2012.

The theme this Summer is biblical theology, focusing on the Gospels. Selections from commentaries by St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Joseph Ratzinger aim to lead to a deeper understanding of the Word of God and provide a starting point for discussion. Some lectures will be given on topics such as biblical inspiration, the use of the bible in the liturgy, and lectio divina. Again, a disputation in the scholastic style will be held during the program.

Holy Mass, the sung Latin Benedictine office with the monks, spiritual guidance and confessions are all readily available, and a number of optional excursions are offered.

Those who have or can make the time, and can afford the 675 Euro (at the moment just under $900 USD) plus the transportation to and from Norcia, are highly encouraged to consider this academic and spiritual program.

For much more detailed information, see the description of the program on the Center's own website.

Remedies for Gossip and Slander – St. Josemaria Escriva

Gossip and slander are frequently found even among those who consider themselves good Christians. Few things, however, are more harmful to a community. It can start innocently enough. One person makes a comment to a third person about something someone else did or said. Perhaps this first person doesn't even intend the comment to be negative. The person hearing the comment, however, sees it as reflecting badly on the person being spoken about. Instead of clarifying the situation, he passes on this juicy tidbit of gossip, possibly distorting it even more in the process. The telling of this rumor ceases to be merely gossip and becomes slander, that is, the making of claims detrimental to a person's reputation with reckless disregard for the truth, disregard for the fact that one possesses no substantial evidence for these defamatory claims. The whole process is deeply opposed to charity and very harmful to the relationships between people. The slide below illustrates the origin and spread of such malicious rumors:

Gossip turning into slander, causing mistrust

Such things are, regrettably, all too real and all too common.

 The biblical rules for dealing with the faults people commit are aimed to avoid this culture of gossip and slander.

 "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reprove him openly, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:17-18)

When one sees or believes that someone has done something wrong, one normally must talk to that person, and tell him so; one ought, of course to be open to the possibility that one has misunderstood the situation, and that this person in fact did not do anything wrong, as well as to the possibility or even likelihood that even if he made a mistake, it was not out of malice. This open talk with the person whom one feels has done something wrong hinders the bearing of a grudge, a violation of fraternal charity. It also decreases the likelihood of seeking an outlet for one's grievance by unnecessarily making it known to third parties, gossiping about it.

Christ lays down a similar rule, and further clarifies the way to proceed in such cases:

"If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Mat 18:15-17 — The words "against you" are not present in a number of manuscripts.)

 To go to the person in private, if the situation can be then resolved, keeps other people from getting involved who do not need to know about the fault. It also avoids the danger of falsely accusing a person. When one goes to the person concerned, one may find out that one has misunderstood the situation. By going directly to him, one has avoided slandering him by passing on this defamatory misunderstanding to others.

Only if the situation cannot be resolved between the two persons should one bring others into the situation. And then one should if possible not immediately involve everyone, but bring only a third party or two in, who may help to bring more objectivity to the situation, at any rate as witnesses. Only if all such efforts fail need the sin be brought to the attention of the larger community to deal with it.

 Unfortunately, this rule of Christ, this rule of christian charity, is widely ignored. For various reasons (to avoid a confrontation with the person, to pass it on to someone more “capable” of dealing with it, to pass it on to an “authority”, to feel better about one's own faults by talking about the faults of others, out of a pleasure in gossiping, etc.) most of the time people do not talk with the person they believe committed a fault, but talk about him to others. How can someone break this vicious circle of gossip? He can of course refuse to pass on such negative gossip himself, he can indicate disapproval of it, etc. But that often is not enough to stop the pervasive culture of gossip. Nor does it rectify the injustice (the damage to a person's reputation) of which he has become aware, at least not in most cases.

 St. Josemaria Escriva's advice

St. Josemaria Escriva proposes a radical method to counter malicious gossip: Tell the person who is spreading gossip that you will speak to the person concerned about it, and then go and do just that; and do not say “someone told me,” but name that person, so that the one about whom such statements were being made can, if necessary, talk to that person himself.

"This is how you should answer a backbiter: 'I shall tell the person concerned' or "I shall speak to him about it."  (Furrow, 916)

"I can see no Christian fraternity in a friend who warns you: 'I've been told some terrible things about you. You shouldn't trust some of your friends.' I think it is not Christian because that brother has not taken the honest approach of silencing the slanderer first, and then telling you his name out of loyalty. If that brother does not have the strength of character to demand such behavior of himself, he will end up making you live on your own, driving you to distrust everyone and to be uncharitable towards everyone." (Furrow, 743)

This is illustrated by the following slide:

Breaking the chain of gossip

Of course, at this point the problems caused by gossiping are still not yet all resolved. Further steps would be necessary, such as e.g.:

Jen and Pat go on to talk to James, to clarify/resolve things with him.

Jen talks again to Randall, telling him he seems to have misunderstood the situation, and suggests Randall correct the mistake by talking to James and Pat and then to Tom to clarify Tom's statement that Randall had previously uncritically received (and possibly misinterpreted).

 

What do you think about this suggested procedure of St. Josemaria Escriva?

Ratzinger On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried

In 1998 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger introduced the volume entitled 'On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried', published by the Libreria in the dicastery's series. The third part of this introduction has been recently republished by the L'osservatore Romano. In outline, he makes the following points there:

(1) The possibilities of separation indicated in Scripture (the obscure case of porneia [Mat 5:32, 19:9], and division over faith [1 Cor 7:12-16]) do not justify relativizing Christ's restoration and elevation of marriage as a sign of the unconditional covenant of divine love.

(2) The patristic tradition clearly shows the teaching of the indissolubility of marriage, and does not supply grounds for a general pastoral practice at odds with this indissolubility.

(3) Epikeia cannot be applied to norms of divine law, and thus not to the indissolubility of marriage. Epikeia may, however, be applicable in the internal forum in some instances in which the external juridical judgment is mistaken (regarding, e.g., the validity of a first marriage). This question needs further study.

(4) The Church's teaching and practice is in full accord with and develops the teaching and personalistic orientation of Vatican II regarding marriage.

(4b) Further study is needed on the question regarding whether or not baptized persons who never or who no longer believe in God can truly enter into a sacramental marriage. "In other words, it needs to be clarified whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage." What is clear is that faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament. What remains to be clarified is what counts as an absence of faith that would hinder a sacramental marriage.

(5) A truly pastoral approach to marriage, including cases of divorce and remarriage, must remain faithful to the truth, which cannot be passed over or compromised. "In the end, only the truth can be pastoral."

Since this introduction is from Cardinal Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I have added this introduction to the timeline in the earlier post The Church on Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Catholics.

Why is Hell Eternal?

There is general agreement among Fathers, Doctors, and recent theologians that those punished in hell are incorrigible. In cases where some allowed or allow the possibility of a certain soul's or person's conversion (whether that conversion occur through the first time meeting with Christ in the case of pagans who did not know Christ on earth, through a medicinal, purifying penalty, or in some other  way), they do not consider such a person doomed to everlasting punishment in hell.

However, there is less agreement on why those in hell are incorrigible. The common patristic account, when an account is given by those fathers who uphold everlasting punishment in hell, is that God has established this lifetime for grace and repentance, withholds his grace after death from those who died without charity, and therefore no conversion to God is then possible. Thus a person need not have fundamentally perverted their natural desire for good, need not be thoroughly bad, in order to punished in hell forever; it is enough to be overall more bad than good; one grave sin is enough.

The departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done.

8. What shall we do in the day of visitation… when He will reason with us, and oppose us, and set before us those bitter accusers, our sins, comparing our wrongdoings with our benefits, and striking thought with thought, and scrutinizing action with action, and calling us to account for the image which has been blurred and spoilt by wickedness, till at last He leads us away self-convicted and self-condemned, no longer able to say that we are being unjustly treated — a thought which is able even here sometimes to console in their condemnation those who are suffering….

9. … [His right judgment] places in the balance for us all, our entire life, action, word, and thought, and weighs against the evil that which is better, until that which preponderates wins the day, and the decision is given in favor of the main tendency; after which there is no appeal, no higher court, no defense on the ground of subsequent conduct, no oil obtained from the wise virgins, or from them that sell, for the lamps going out, no repentance of the rich man wasting away in the flame, and begging for repentance for his friends (St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 16).

Recent theologians (possibly including Joseph Ratzinger), reluctant to affirm that the incorrigibility of those in hell is due to God's hardening their hearts in sin through a withdrawal of their grace, commonly hold that only those are in hell who have so distorted and perverted their will through deliberate sin, that it is impossible for them to convert, or impossible without a strict miracle. Thus only persons who became thoroughly bad in this life are in hell.

A middle position might be that in the moment of death God's love is so encountered that persons, depending on their life up till then and their state at that moment, necessarily either accept God's love, or so forcefully reject it that they thereby become thoroughly bad, even if previously they were not so, but had just failed to subordinate some true good to God.

It seems necessary to take one of these positions. Man's first, original will has to be good, since it is a natural will, from God, the creator of nature. And all man's particular choices and voluntary acts derive from this first original will for goodness, which must, just considered in itself, remain, as long as man's nature remains. Hence, man must remain capable of conversion to the true good, if guided through the right influences. Thus incorrigibility must be due either to God's taking away the possibility of those influences (a hardening of man's heart), or man's being in himself so set in evil that he is utterly closed to those influences that could otherwise draw him to good through his first and natural desire for goodness.

Luisa Piccarreta and the Divine Will

Luisa Piccarretta, who supposedly lived for many years on only the Eucharist and the Divine Will, experienced ongoing visions in which Jesus gave her an understanding of holiness that had not previously been granted to any saint, an understanding of holiness as being not only acceptance or submission to the divine will, but "living in the divine will", an identification with the divine will. When she asked Jesus how it is that till her time no saint had ever fully lived in the divine will, had never reached this degree of charity, she was told that it was because they lacked this understanding, that they could not love more than they understood. She was told that with this message of the Divine Will Jesus made her "Herald of the New Era" and had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary was on Jesus' right side in heaven, while she (Luisa) was at his left.

When read charitably, taking into account both the mystical language and the imprecisions that can rightly be expected to arise when someone with very little education writes down 36 volumes of such visions, the essential message of living in the divine will seems to be none other than that contained in, for instance, the writings of St. Francis de Sales and St. John of the Cross on the union of charity. (If read with indifference or with antecedent suspicion as to the truth of the message, however, it might be equally possible to read her writings as affirming an identification of the human being with God that goes beyond, or is rather antithetical to the christian doctrine of deification and friendship with God.)

Nonetheless, some grave problems seem to be present in her writings with regard to the claims surrounding this message of holiness: the claim that  (1) this way of holiness is radically new and better than anything before it, that (2) Luisa herself surpasses all the previous saints in holiness, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, and that (3) this way of holiness depends upon "understanding".

(1) "My beloved daughter, I want you to know the order of my Providence. In every 2000 year period I have renewed the world. In the first period I renewed it with the flood. In the second 2000 years I renewed it with my coming to the earth and manifesting my humanity from which, as so many channels of light, my divinity shone. And in this third period of 2000 years, those who are good and the saints themselves have lived the fruits of my humanity, but have enjoyed my divinity scarcely at all. Now we are at the end of the third period and there will be a third renovation. This is why there is general confusion. It is due to the preparation for the third renovation." (January, 1919)

(1) "These writings cost me more than creation and redemption. They have within them all the value of My Will." (Vol. 23, March 8, 1928)

(1 & 2) "When you call my Will into you, you also do a unique act. Out of respect for my Will which inhabits you, I must pour enough graces and Love into you to make you surpass all other creatures."

(1 & 2) "It is certain that I have called you first over other souls. Because to no other souls, however much I have loved them, have I shown how to live in My Will, the effects, the marvels, the riches that the creature receives who acts in My supreme Will. Search the lives of the saints as much as you wish or in books of doctrine and you will not find the wonders of My Will working in the creature and the creature acting in My Will. The most you will find will be resignation, abandonment, the union of wills, but the Divine Will working in the creature and the creature in My Will, you will not find this in anyone. This signifies that the time had not arrived in which My kindness would call the creature to live in such a sublime state. Moreover, even the way I ask you to pray is not found in any other . . . " (Book of Heaven, Vol. 12, p. xix)

(2) "Now daughter, you, . . are unique in my mind; and you will be unique in history. There will not be—either before or after you—any other creature for whom I will obligate through necessity the work of my ministers. ., . Since I wanted my Mother with me as the first intermediary of my mercy . . . I wanted her on my right. . . . I wanted you [Luisa] as the first intermediary of justice. . . . I wanted you on my left." (Book of Heaven, p. 12)

(3) "It is true that there have been saints who always did my Will, but they have taken of my Will only to the extent that they understood it. They knew that to do my Will was the greatest of acts, the one which gave Me the greatest honor and which brought them their sanctification. They acted with this intention and so this is all that they received."

In fact, precisely these claimed new aspects (a radically new and essentially better way of holiness, a holiness that depends upon understanding, etc.) are not new claims in the history of the Church. The early Church had to resist gnosticism, which in its own way made perfection dependent upon understanding, as Luisa seems to. Joachim of Fiore proposed a third era of the history of God with his people, as Luisa does. If these claims are taken as part of the message itself, they are signs that it is not from God. The rule of faith, the rule of the Church, since the beginning in fact sees this kind of radical novelty as a sign of heresy.

But while these problems could be taken as an indication that the visions were not from God, but from self-delusion or a demon, they do not necessarily imply that. It is also possible that she had a true experience in which God really revealed himself and a message of holiness to her, yet her perception of this was distorted by an ignorance of the writings of the saints and doctors, so that she pereceived it as radically new, and unconsciously imposed this perception on the vision itself, by a desire for an end to suffering, so that she imagined a "new era" on earth in which suffering would be no more, an so on.

Private revelation, precisely insofar as it is divine revelation, must be true. However, quite unlike the content of Sacred Scripture, the concrete communication of this revelation is not guaranteed free from error, even substantial error. This is sometimes overlooked in discussions of various private revelations, and the assumption is made that either the experiences are from God, and the writings in which these experiences are communicated are all true, or that the experience are not from God. The third logical possibility, however, that the experience are from God, but the communication of these experience is mingled with the recipient's own ideas and influenced by the recipient's own desires, may be a common, or even the usual case. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, indeed, implies that there is always some influence of the recipient's own background. Speaking about Fatima in particular, but also visions in general, it affirms: "Such visions therefore are never simple “photographs” of the other world, but are influenced by the potentialities and limitations of the perceiving subject. This can be demonstrated in all the great visions of the saints… the images are, in a manner of speaking, a synthesis of the impulse coming from on high and the capacity to receive this impulse in the visionaries." (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Message of Fatima, 2000)

Will Those Who are Saved Be Few?

From Augustine's Commentary on Psalm 47 (48)

"We have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people." [Augustine's text is "in medio populi tui", though The Hebrew, Greek, and Vulgate read "in your temple"  rather than "people".] Who have received, and where have they received? Is it not the people itself that has received mercy? If your people has received mercy, how have we received mercy, and in the midst of your people, as though distinct persons: those who have received, and those in whose midst they have received? … All who bear God's sacraments are counted as God's people, but not all reach his mercy. All who receive the sacrament of Christ's baptism are called Christians, but not all live worthily of that sacrament. For there are some of whom the Apostle says: they have the appearance of piety, but deny its power.

He lives worthily of God's mercy, who hears and holds and does what the Apostle says: "we warn and entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor 6:1). Therefore he who has not received the grace of God in vain, has received both the sacrament and the mercy of God.

"We have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people." In the midst of your people who do not receive mercy we have received your mercy. "He came into his own, and his own did not receive him. But as many as received him, he gave power to become children of God."

At this point a question will occur to anyone thinking about the matter: That people who in the midst of God's people have received God's mercy, how great a number will it be? How few they are! Scarcely anyone such is found; can it be that God will be displeased with all the rest, and destroy so great a multitude? They tell this to themselves, promising themselves what they have not heard God promise. And indeed if we should live wickedly, if we immerse ourselves in enjoying the delights of this world, if we are slaves to our lusts, will God destroy us? For how many are there who keep God's commandments? We hardly find one or two, at any rate very few; will God save those alone, and damn the rest? "By no means!" they say. "When he comes and sees such a great multitude at his left hand, he will have mercy, and will grant indulgence."

Evidently the serpent also promised this to the first man; for God had threatened death, if he tasted of the fruit, whereas the serpent said: by no means, you will not die the death. They believed the serpent, they found God's threat to be true, the devil's promise to be false. So also now, brethren, put the Church before your eyes. See how it is an image and likeness of Paradise: the serpent does not cease to suggest what he then suggested. But the experience of the first man's fall should avail to warn us not to imitate his sin. He fell so that we might rise. Let us answer such suggestions the way Job did. For the devil tempted him through a woman, as through Eve, and, overcome in paradise, he overcame in the dung. Therefore let us not listen to such words, nor let us think that those [who keep God's commandments] are few; they are many, but they are hidden among an even greater number. For we cannot deny that the wicked are many, and so many that the good are not apparent among them, as a seed is not apparent on the threshing floor. For whoever sees the threshing floor can think that the chaff is alone. Send an inexperienced man, and he will foolishly think that oxen are sent and man sweat there in the heat in order to crush the chaff; but there is in fact a mass to be purged by exposure to the wind. Then an abundance of grain appears, which was hidden in the abundance of chaff. And now you want to find those who are good? Be such, and you will find them. Therefore against that despair see what follows in the psalm. For when the psalmist had said: "we have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people," he indicated that that people, in the midst of which some receive God's mercy, was not receiving God's mercy; and lest men should get the idea that they are so few as to be almost none, how he has consoled them with the following words? "As is your name, God, so is your praise unto the ends of the earth." (St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 47 (48))


The argument "How many are there who keep God's commandments? We hardly find one or two, at any rate very few; will God save those alone, and damn the rest? By no means! When he comes at sees such a great multitude at his left hand, he will have mercy, and will grant indulgence." is not altogether implausible in view of the fact that eternal punishments are threatened in order to restrain persons from doing evil and thus lead them to God. If the obligation of the commandments, the breaking of which is punished by hell, were to have as a consequence that more people were ultimately separated from God than would have been in the absence of those commandments and threats, then the commandments and the threat of hell would seem to be counterproductive, something for which God would not have a motivation.

Augustine does not directly address the plausibility of this argument. One, could, however, answer it in several ways: (1) in fact many persons are restrained from evil and begin the path to good by reason of the fear of hell; Augustine's answer goes somewhat in this direction, inasmuch as he says that there are many persons will be saved, they are just many less than those who will be damned; (2) the obligation of the commandments and threat of hell does not imply that anyone will go to hell (be separated from God) who would not have in the absence of the commandments, but only makes explicit the separation from God that is already attendant upon a will that bears nothing but hatred for God and goodness; this view seem to be suggested by Pope Benedict's portrayal of hell in Spe Salvi: "There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves…. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell." In this description of hell, it seems no one would ultimately go to hell for failing to meet a high standard of love, but for utter depravity, a possibility of separation from the ultimate good, God, that would have equally existed had the commandments and threat of hell not been explicated.