Guaranteed Salvation: dare we presume?

Whenever a loved one dies, it seems more and more common, even among those who were raised Catholic, to immediately canonize that person. A quick browse of Facebook posts by people with recently deceased friends or relatives easily attest to this tendency. Some even go so far as to label the dearly departed as “new angels” (a gross confusion on the biblical-theological teaching on angels; we will not address this point here). Angelic or not, we are confronted with the presumption that our loved ones enjoy the Beatific Vision; however, few things can be more harmful to our own souls to and the souls of our loved ones than to presume their immediate salvation.

Some of the most beautiful church buildings in the world and many of the world’s most renowned art galleries testify to a completely different theological view. The memento mori theme is ubiquitous; paintings, mosaics, and sculptures commonly depict the pains of hell. Tombstones and memorial monuments are often adorned with skulls and crossbones. This is not mere morbidism for the sake of being morbid; the passer-by is constantly reminded that one’s choices in this life can certainly affect the next. The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly expresses the Catholic doctrine on despair and presumption.

2091. The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption. By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice– for the Lord is faithful to his promises– and to his mercy.

2092. There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

Presumption and despair correspond to one another in the sense that they both deny a person’s own agency in their eternal reward or punishment. In the case of presumption, such a belief would obliterate the reality of sin and destroy the coherence of moral order in hac lacrimarum valle. Even if we concede that most people are not notorious, heinous sinners and led a generally good life, we cannot concede with absolute certainty that nothing in their lives need forgiveness. As Pope Francis likes to say so often, siamo tutti peccatori. If we presume that our loved ones are immediately in heaven after their deaths, it logically follows that sin has no consequence. On the contrary, we must actively participate in the grace that God provides in order to live a truly holy life and thus “earn” (insofar as we can earn, without denying the gratuitous action of Christ) .

The sin of presumption is fundamentally a Pelagian tendency. When people immediately assume that their loved one is in heaven without accounting for the shared fallen state of all humanity, they err in thinking that a human being, on his or her own efforts, can “achieve” salvation. The correlative balance between freedom and responsibility is destroyed in favor of a sentimental remembrance of the deceased in question.

When the phrase “celebration of his/her life” replaces “funeral” or “memorial service”, the full reality and gravity of death escapes full appreciation. Even the idea of using white liturgical vestments at funeral Masses (to symbolize hope in the resurrection) instead of the traditional black vestments seem to tend towards presumption of the deceased’s salvation. Black vestments have been used for funerals since time immemorial precisely because death, the mark of sin and of our fallen condition, is something to be lamented. Death is lamentable because we cannot know with full certitude the destination of our loved ones, and this why we have funerals and Requiem Masses– to pray for the repose of their souls. Those who would presume that loved ones are immediately “in a better place” seem perpetually trapped in the first stage of the K├╝bler-Ross model: denial. Yet if the deceased did in fact automatically enjoy the Beatific Vision, what would be the point of gathering to pray for them?

The source text of this blog’s title, the ancient Praefatio pro Defunctis, has that little, beautiful line: Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur. Only for God’s true faithful people is life transformed. Those who, even in small measure, might not be counted inter fidelibus cannot be so certain of their guaranteed salvation.

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