Rorate Caeli

Dare we Hope?

AS WAS REPORTED HERE this past spring, the champions of Balthasar’s theology of hope for universal salvation censored a book review by Dr. David Paul Deavel of Dr. Ralph Martin’s recent publication, Will Many Be Saved? In doing so, they promised to undertake a sort of symposium in order to get a spectrum of different understandings of the interpretation of various passages from Vatican II on the subject.

Last week, the results of this symposium were published on the blog at Catholic World Report. Deavel’s original review is posted, as well as a number of other essays on the subject of Vatican II and salvation. However, the president of Ignatius Press, Mark Brumley, in his own essay cleverly sidesteps one of the central accusations that Martin makes against Balthasar, namely that Balthasar makes specious use of his sources, often quoting them out of context or even to make the opposite point of what the author intended.

Instead, Brumley concludes the selection of essays by offering an alternative interpretation of Balthasar that would more easily harmonize with Tradition and Scripture regarding the “hope” of universal salvation.

But what does Scripture and Tradition tell us about hope and salvation? If God created everyone out of love, then surely he would will them all to reach their end - eternal happiness in heaven. And if he wills the end, then surely he wills the means, right? Therefore, all will be saved?

But to the contrary, Jesus says that “many are called and few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14). Further, the Council of Trent says, "Although Christ died for all, yet not all receive the benefit of his death, but only those to whom the merits of his passion are communicated" (“Decree on Justification”, ch. 3, Council of Trent). Still further, the Council of Florence states on the necessity of explicit faith: “that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives...” (Session 11)

So where does Balthasar get off track? It seems evident that it is integrally tied to the modern philosophy which he employs, leading to an incomplete understanding of the relationship between the Creator and Creation. Balthasar formulates the problem like this: “The question is whether God, with respect to his plan of salvation, ultimately depends, and wants to depend, upon man’s choice; or whether his freedom, which wills only salvation and is absolute, might not remain above things human, and  therefore relative.” (from Dare we Hope, ch. 1)

The question is a technical one, to be sure. For Balthasar, the first option is to be “above judgment”; while the second option is to be “under judgment”. But are the two options presented really the only ones? If it is the first option, then logically we proceed to the reality that God is not God, but rather, he is dependent upon Man for the fulfillment of his will; thus, Man becomes the god (he is “above judgment”). If the second, then man’s will is not free, but rather is totally overwhelmed by God’s divine and absolute will (how Balthasar formulates being “under judgment”). Neither of these solutions seem acceptable. Is there another option?

At the heart of the question, “dare we hope”, is what do we mean by the word “hope”? A proper understanding of the theological virtue of hope, then, will provide the solution. The new Catechism defines hope as thus:

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 1817)

It is a good definition, because it well defines the field in which we are expounding. In the first part, we understand hope as a theological virtue, an unmerited gift of God, freely given by him to us, ordinarily through baptism, making us members of the mystical body of Christ, the Catholic Church, and orienting us toward the end that God has prepared for us through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ.

In the second part of the definition, we find that it clearly avoids the heresy of Pelagianism, that we can somehow work to obtain our salvation, rather than rely wholly on the work of Christ. Up to now, Balthasar seems consonant with the Church’s understanding.

However, it is in the last part of the definition where we find the point in contention: how do we understand “help” in relation to the grace of the Holy Spirit?

In this regard, it seems that the definition is incomplete without reference to the two sins against the virtue of hope: despair and presumption. In trying to grapple with utter despair, the Calvinists interpret Romans 8 in such a manner as to develop a doctrine of “double-predestination”: that all are either positively predestined by God to be in Heaven, or positively predestined to Hell - of course, the Calvinists are naturally all a part of the elect - but this scenario does not adequately take into account man’s free will. For them, help means “irresistible grace”, a grace that overwhelms man’s will such that he cannot refuse.

Similarly with Balthasar. His doctrine of a hope for universal salvation interpreted strictly seems to correspond to the opposing sin against hope: presumption. Especially in consideration of its opposition to Scripture’s clear teaching that many will fall away, how do we properly understand God’s predestination of some to beatitude, while not positively predestining others to hell? Understanding this properly is perhaps the only way to offer a third option than the two that Balthasar proposes in the question as stated above.

In order to fully grasp the answer, a thorough study of St. Thomas’s commentary on Romans 8 is necessary, as well as question 19 of the Prima Pars, on the Will of God. Books have been written about the subject, and so there is not sufficient space to expound it here. However, to put it simply, it seems that Balthasar, just like Calvin, is unable to differentiate between the objective redemption won for all through the merits of Christ, and the subjective redemption in each person through the cooperation with the sufficient grace supplied to each person. For Calvin, there is no “objective redemption” for all - only each of the elect. For Balthasar, there is seemingly no “subjective redemption” for each - only the multitude.

If I may recommend Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s commentary on the subject, he commits a whole book to the question, creatively entitled Predestination. He also offers a distilled solution to the problem in his commentary on the first part of the Summa, responding to the question “Does predestination add anything to providence in general,” to which he responds:

It adds to the efficacy of the means and the infallible attainment of the end. In other words... by divine providence the end directly intended by God’s consequent will is always attained, namely, the good of the universe; but for the attainment of this end certain evils are permitted, and thus certain things are indirectly intended; these are willed by God’s antecedent will, such as that all the fruits do not become ripe, that all human beings are not saved. Contrary to this, since predestination depends solely on God’s consequent will, it always obtains its effect, in this sense that the predestined are always saved. (Garrigou-LaGrange, The One God, 679-80)

Note here the difference between Catholic “predestination” and Calvinist “double-predestination”.

To return to the argument put forward by Brumley. His argument in defense of Balthasar seems merely to point out that Balthasar doesn’t argue for universal salvation as such, but merely “the hope” of universal salvation. Respectfully, I think that this seems to be an equivocation on the meaning of the word “hope”-- meaning, a human hope, rather than the theological virtue of hope, which seems to necessarily allow that some (or many) will not be saved. Understood in this light, it may not be unfair to argue that Balthasar’s position could be that of a “universalist”.

Inherent to Brumley’s argument is a technicality: it is dependent entirely upon what one means by the word “hope”. While it is a nice feeling to “hope” that no-one will be in hell, the language which the tradition gives us presents a different understanding. Unfortunately, this type of theology, either done with no regard for the tradition or based upon a re-definition of the content of the tradition, is extant in practically every major dispute regarding the texts of the Second Vatican Council. This seems to be the task of the theologian today: to continually give voice to the perennial truths and to identify error for what it is in the process of making further explicit the deposit of faith in the light of the Council.


For more on the subject of Balthasar’s hope for universal salvation, see the series of exchanges that First Things hosted, and wherein we see that the only argument the other side can put forward is essentially an ad hominem:

See also our friends at Unam Sanctam, who have just completed a recent series of posts on the subject: