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Only Believers Are Saved

In the exchange between Michelle Arnold and your correspondent Michael O’Halloran regarding the salvation of atheists (Letters, January-February 2010), it seems to me that each is partly right.

I agree with Ms. Arnold that the Bible-based, Catholic doctrine that God can in principle be known by the light of human reason does not rule out the possibility that the unbelief of some atheists may be without serious personal fault. One thinks, for example, of those who have been brought up from infancy on a steady diet of anti-religious propaganda and “scientific” assurances that a mindless evolutionary process explains all that exists.

On the other hand, Mr. O’Halloran is right to insist that no atheist can ever reach Heaven, or even be in the state of sanctifying grace before death. The first passage from Lumen Gentium 16 cited by Ms. Arnold should not be understood to mean that someone still lacking an explicit belief in God at the moment of death can nevertheless be saved. (I am not saying she gives that false Rahnerian interpretation to the conciliar text, but neither do her remarks clearly rule it out.) Here as elsewhere, Vatican II texts lacking in clarity need to be understood in harmony with traditional doctrine—the “hermeneutic of continuity” stressed by Pope Benedict XVI. So the Council should be understood as teaching here that those unbelievers who, with the help of grace (actual, not sanctifying), persevere in “striving to lead a good life” will be enabled prior to death to know and believe the saving gospel for which that “striving” has been a “preparation.”

It is of course a fundamental Christian doctrine that without the theological virtue of faith no one can be justified or saved (cf. Heb 11: 6, CCC 161). And Vatican I defined infallibly that in order to possess this virtue one must believe revealed truth on the authority of God who reveals it (cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer 3032). Now, since it is plain that no one can believe certain revealed truths on God’ s authority without believing consciously and explicitly that there is any personal God, it follows that nobody can be justified (i.e., reach the state of grace) while remaining an atheist or agnostic. Those dying as atheists and agnostics will be damned because of their unbelief if it was culpable, or, if it was inculpable, because of other grave sins which they never repented with perfect contrition.

— Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
St. Louis, Missouri

Beware State-Run Health “Care”

Jeffrey Mirus’ article “The U.S. Bishops, Health Care, and Public Policy” (November-December 2009) did a splendid job articulating the appropriate place the U.S. bishops have within this contentious health care debate. Freedom to choose for or against health insurance should be the right of individuals. This freedom should also extend to those who don’t wish to surrender their private health care plans. While I realize that the creation of a single-payer system won’t be the immediate result of the federal plan, it’s coming.

As a state government employee, I gave up pursuing a career in the private sector in favor of the stability of state government service more than a decade ago. The health benefits are an important dimension of this. We’re not always satisfied with the continuity and quality of our care, and I agree that there are major problems within the health-care system of this country—especially in terms of children without medical coverage. Still, HMO incompetence is better than dependence upon a government-controlled system. To illustrate, let me share a couple of experiences.

When my wife and I were first married, we were as poor as church mice and living in the northwest corner of Washington State. Some of the worst medical care our family ever received was during a time when we briefly relied upon public aid. My daughter Sarah experienced serious complications at birth, and we will never know whether the poor care of her delivery had lasting consequences for long-term health and well-being. Nearly as frightening: Sarah would have gone blind if we had not left Washington State for Texas, where we able to stay with family and pay for an eye specialist’s surgery. The doctor in Washington, paid through the state health safety net, ignored a serious problem, a problem which would have led eventually to Sarah’s blindness, according to her Dallas eye surgeon. Assembly-line medicine does not work, and the worst kind of assembly-line medicine of all is where the state or federal government is the overseer.

There is also the issue of moral equivalence. If you believe, as we do, that the act of abortion is inherently evil, then a program which promotes and provides a mechanism for this nature of misguided care is tantamount to other forms of killing—e.g. euthanasia. It’s all about the slippery slope. When the Death with Dignity debate was ongoing some years ago in our state of Oregon, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper predicting that we were embarking on a direction which was profoundly wrong, the ramifications of which would be very harmful to Oregon. I suggested that we would soon see examples of dependents on public health care being told to take the assisted-suicide route over expensive procedures or drug treatments.

Sadly, my words have come true on at least two occasions in Oregon. It’s all about that slippery slope. The present health-care initiative may not result in these conditions immediately, but the change will come eventually. If the value of natural life is ignored, then no life is ultimately sacred in the eyes of the state. Whether the very young or the very old, those in the greatest need of care and compassion will see the least.

On July 15 I was able to give CPR to a gentleman in my community; he’s alive today. The experience has encouraged me to give this matter greater thought than I might otherwise have done. Life is too precious a gift to avoid taking a stand on this issue. I would urge your readers to oppose the misguided federal takeover of the health-care system of the United States at a time when we are financially as weak as we have been in generations.

—Karl Erickson
Salem, Oregon

God, Aquinas, and Creation

Reflection on last summer’s debate in your pages (Letters: January, February, April, July-August 2009) about St. Thomas Aquinas and intelligent design brought up a point that Dr. Tkacz did not bring out but that might solve several problems in our understanding.

We tend to lose sight of the meaning of the fact that God is outside time. To him all times, whether we call them past, present, or future, are all completely and simultaneously present (Summa Theologiae I:10, especially articles 1 and 2). We tend to think of Creation as in the past, because for us, the first moment of the existence of the universe is in the past. But considered from a point of view outside time (a privilege we may dare to assume as imago Dei), God has created the universe, in a single act, as a four-dimensional object that comprises all of time itself, everything we call past, present, and future. Not only the beginning of time (ST I:46:3), but in fact every moment in time, maps to the moment of Creation.

This understanding can be the means of overcoming the quarrels about evolution and intelligent design. The four-dimensional structure of the complete Creation includes the whole detailed course of what looks to Darwinists like random chance and natural selection and looks to intelligent design advocates like a lot of events too lucky to be the result of chance.

It can also put to rest the concerns raised in the discussion about the purpose of prayer. The complete Creation includes God’s response to every action of every one of his creatures at all times, including our prayers (and, alas, our sins as well). We are not limited to prayers of thanks for what God has “already” planned for us. Our prayers reach the Creator in the same moment he creates us. We can even pray for events in the past (as long as we do not know the actual outcome—that is, as long as we do not know already that God wills differently)!

A controversial example: During the 2000 election recounts, Catholics were observed outside the ballot offices, praying hard for the defeat of an administration that was hostile to their concerns as anti-communist and pro-life Catholics. For good or ill, God evidently granted their petition. But the election had occurred weeks before. What happened? There is no reason to suppose God miraculously repaired or severed a single dangling chad. Hearing their prayers uttered as late as December, God appeared to arrange matters in the structure of time and space such that on Election Day some voters got themselves to the polls and others didn’t bother.

—Jerome Colburn
Champaign, Illinois

Michael T. Tkacz replies: Mr. Colburn is quite correct that divine eternity is central to the proper understanding of God’s relation to his Creation. The eternity of God’s agency was mentioned in my original article as well as in my reply to several letters to the editor. No doubt it is true, as Mr. Colburn suggests, that we tend to lose sight of the fact that God is outside time in the sense that there is no sequence or process in God or his actions. The failure to keep this in mind is another example of what I call the Cosmogonical Fallacy whereby God’s agency is improperly conflated with natural agency.

Mr. Colburn is also correct to point out that God’s Creation of the natural universe is not an event that took place at some point in the distant past, like the cosmic Big Bang. (I am not denying the Big Bang, but only pointing out that, if the universe as we know it came to be because of a primordial Big Bang, that event cannot be identified with God’s Creation of the universe.) Indeed, God’s Creation is not an event at all. It is the eternal fact of the absolute dependence of the created universe on God’s simple and non-sequential act of Creation. Mr. Colburn’s point, therefore, is well-taken.

St. Thomas Aquinas, however, warns us that we must be careful to understand this correctly. It is not simply that God is always or eternally creating that makes divine Creation different from natural production. Creation, Aquinas reminds us, differs from eternal generation. The Son of God is eternally generated by the Father, but not created. The Son does not depend on the Father for his reality, because the reality that the Son receives from the Father is the very same absolute divine reality possessed by the Father that is not dependent on anything. The created universe, however, receives its being from God so that before God creates, the universe has non-being—it is nothing. This priority of the universe’s non-being to its being is not a priority of time or duration such that what did not exist before comes to exist later, says Aquinas. Rather it is a priority of nature such that, if left to itself, the created thing does not exist ( Super Libros Sent. II:1:1, 2). Therefore, the way in which God’s eternity is relevant to the notion of creation is in showing that Creation not an event or process. All events and processes necessarily take place in time and God’s act of Creation is eternal.

How God’s eternity is relevant to the debate between Darwinians and intelligent-design theorists requires some explanation. The point of my article was to show how the analysis of the meaning of Creation given by Aquinas brings clarity to this modern debate. There is a difference, says Aquinas, between producing a nature absolutely and producing a nature in something else ( Summa Theologiae I:45:5). God’s Creation is the first sort of production, and natural processes are the second. This means that the Darwinian account of the emergence of the diversity of living things cannot be a denial of Creation, for it is the production of something in something else (one natural species changes into another). This also means that intelligent design theory cannot be an affirmation of Creation, for it is not an account of the absolute production of a nature but of the temporal production of a new species (God acts at a certain point in the sequence of time). From Aquinas’s point of view, both views have nothing to do with God’s Creation, because neither is about the reason why there is something rather than nothing at all. They are both about how something becomes something else. Thus, there is a fallacious conflation of divine Creation and natural change.

Similar considerations apply to the purpose of prayer. It is not simply that God is eternally present to all of our prayers. He is, of course, but it is also that God’s answering our prayers is not his being caused by our prayer to grant us his grace. As created beings, we are totally dependent on God and he is absolutely independent of us. Thus, we cannot cause God to do anything. God’s grace is freely (without external imposition) and providentially given to us on the occasion of our praying, an occasion to which God is eternally present.


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