On Saints and Souls

The modern world has a peculiar problem with Catholicism. Few acknowledge that such a thing as “sin” exists. But an occult delight surges in many souls over the frequent aberrations of believers.

A twofold reason exists for this reaction. First, the track record of believers is consolingly not much different from that of unbelievers. Secondly, no need to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad can be given if no one can do anything about them. Yet we recollect the nagging teaching that Christ became man, in part, so that sins might be forgiven. The denial that sins happen logically denies the need or reality of a forgiving God.

In the Church, the first two days of November are the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In recent years, Benedict often gives, as evidence for the validity of Catholicism, the example of the saints, from all walks of life. Morality is not primarily a list of rules or series of sanctions. It is mainly the following the example of those who loved God and neighbor, who served the minds and bodies of their friends and fellow men.

Prominent in the list of actual saints are those known to have been, by any objective standards, sinners. This approach teaches us that sin itself need be not the last word, though it can be, if we choose. Sin is the other side of human freedom. To deny the possibility and fact of sin is to deny the possibility and fact of human freedom.

Benedict has likewise devoted much attention to the souls of the departed. The teaching on souls in Purgatory has recently been downgraded, if not simply rejected. Yet it is the primary doctrine that stands, as it were, between saints and sinners. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of all the saints who have ever reached the purpose of their lives, the City of God, the achievement of the end for which each person is created.

All Souls’ Day refers rather to the probably far larger number of people who died repentant indeed, but not yet really ready to encounter the divine life. Benedict, along with Plato on the same topic, suggests that no one would want to stand before God unless he was sufficiently cleansed. He leaves the logic to sink in.

        All Souls’ Day by Aladar Korosfoi-Kriesch, 1910

We hear of the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Militant. The same Church is understood to have members in heaven, in Purgatory, and still deciding on where they will be. Obviously left out are those who have simply and responsibly rejected entrance into such a Church at any level. The last section of Hobbes’ Leviathan was entitled “The Kingdom of Darkness.”

Benedict devotes much attention to the following phrase in the Creed:  “Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.” Why is this? Readers of Plato – the pope is one of these – know that Socrates was concerned to show that the world was not created in injustice. Man was not “the measure of all things,” as Protagoras had suggested. If he were, nothing we do would make much difference.

This consequence would mean that crimes and sins that men committed in this life were not accounted for if they were not repented of or punished. It would also mean that the many noble and good, but unacknowledged, things that we do for one another would not be recognized.

The doctrine of hell, if nothing else, testifies to the significance of our actual deeds, however we might judge them in our own interest. Plato understood this issue quite clearly. In Plato, if we die in our sins, we are condemned to the river of punishment. We cannot escape until the person against whom we sinned actually forgives us.

What Christianity adds to this teaching on forgiveness is that our sins are not simply against one another. Or better, as they are against one another, they are also against God who placed us in the order in which we live, the order of our freedom and responsibility. Christian revelation begins its teaching to us with the word:  “Repent.” This admonition implies that we have the graced power to do so. But we do not have the power to forgive ourselves since it is not only against ourselves that we have sinned.

How often shall we forgive our neighbor? Christ answered this question of the apostle by saying not just seven times but seventy times seven times. That is to say, the core of our issues with God remains as long as we have our freedom. But we can choose either way. This choosing is what we do in the drama of our actual lives. All Saints and All Souls – these two days, if we think of them, reach the very foundations of our being.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019