Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How To Understand Predestination From A Catholic Perspective

Q - I was having a discussion about free will and the concept of predestination with a Catholic friend. Now, I am thoroughly confused as to if and how the concept of predestination fits into our faith. The idea put forth by my friend was that through efficacious grace alone can we accept God. Also, this grace is offered only to some and that it is not within us to reject it. I do not see how free will fits with this idea. Will you straighten me out – should I believe in predestination as a Catholic?

A - Thanks for the question.  This is a common question and many Catholics wrestle with it. Predestination can be understood in many different ways and considering how you define it we can say the simple answer is, yes, the Catholic Church teaches predestination as part of the doctrine of the Church. But, what exactly does that mean?

A definition of predestination can be taken from the Catechism:
"To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination", he includes in it each person's free response to his grace: "In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness." - CCC, 600
Notice how predestination is defined. God knows all who will accept His gift of saving grace.  So, for all time, the knowledge of God being unlimited, God has known whom would say "yes" to His grace. This is the plan of salvation offered to us from the Father, through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The confusion about this doctrine arises when theologians attempt to explain how the mystery of free will, grace, and the fore-knowledge of God all fit together. There are several options for Catholics to choose from and we are free to do so.  But, there are also some positions the Church rejects.

The first position the Church rejects is one called Pelagianism.  This originated from a man called Pelagius who taught we choose free will apart from God's grace. In other words, Pelagius taught that we don't need God's assistance to save ourselves, it is all an act of our own will. This has always been rejected by the Church, because it makes salvation a work of man. We certainly can't choose to save ourselves by any act of the will alone, apart from God's gift of grace first acting on us.

The second position the Church rejects is sometimes called double predestination. This is the position of some who follow the Calvinist/Reformed tradition. This is the teaching which says God actively chooses some to go to heaven and damns others to hell. This would mean we have no free will to choose salvation at all, but all the work is from God alone and we cannot change our destiny, but it is predetermined no matter what. It also means God is the cause damnation, which the Church has always rejected.

Notice the first error removes God as the prime actor and second removes any cooperation from man. So, where does that leave us?  It leaves us with several options.

The first option is built from both St. Augustine and then St. Thomas Aquinas. Others come from Molina and other scholars. I won't go into the details here, but let me sum up the positions by saying that the Thomists emphasize grace and the Molinists emphasize free will. But, neither camp rejects the other side they do not emphasize.

Here are the things the Catholic Church teaches about predestination and the doctrines surrounding it:
  • God is the source of all good.  God does not create evil (which isn't really a "thing", but rather an absence of a good).  God cannot do an evil act.
  • God allows humans to choose to do good or evil.  We have free will.  It is possible to reject God's grace.
  • God's knowledge is infinite. There is nothing He does not know.
  • God wills (desires) that all be saved.
  • God always acts first. His grace comes and then we are empowered by it to be able to respond.
  • Even after saving grace is received, we can reject it later.
Within the framework of this discussion about predestination, a Catholic has the freedom to formulate how it all works out.  Thus the different opinions from Thomists, Molinists, etc.

I hope this helps.

Here are some other posts that relate to this subject that might be of use:
-Salvation and Catholics
-"Faith Alone"
-Am I Saved?

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