Conversion as Paradigm Shift


Friends: The Papal Posse will ride again on Thursday! Raymond Arroyo, Robert Royal, and Fr. Gerald Murray will discuss the final report of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. What does it tell us about the future of the faith? Check your local listings for EWTN’s “The World Over,” which airs at 8:00 PM Eastern.


Dare we hope that all be saved?  A great theologian put the question in precisely this way, thirty years ago.  He did not phrase his question in what grammarians call the indicative mood — “that all are saved”— since, he insisted, he was not talking about a matter of fact, a doctrine.  Instead, he used the subjunctive mood (in Greek, it would be the optative mood, the “hoping” mood), because he was talking about an outlook or attitude.

Now turn the question on yourself.  Dare you hope that you be saved?  It admits of an easy answer.  All of us will and should say, “of course,” unless we’ve given into that bleak despair which closes us off even to God’s mercy, the “unforgivable sin.”

Change it back to the indicative.  Will you be saved?  This question too has an easy answer.  Every sensible person will say (and this is Church teaching, CCC 2016) that “I do not know.”  Each of us needs “the grace of final perseverance,” and we should be praying for it. To think that we know we are saved is a dangerous, false presumption, which puts us at great peril of being lost.

These are inherently tricky questions.  “Do not make comparisons,” the great saints advise.  Here are two data points.

First, remember when you were a child, and your father or mother held you to high standards of conduct.  You thought, “but no one else has to do that.”  But it did not matter what everyone else was doing.  You sensed, with a child’s heart, that the state of your soul hinged on what your parents were requiring of you.

Second, Our Lord speaks directly to us in just the same way that our parents did. A whole chapter in Mark (ch. 13) is devoted to his admonition — be alert, stay awake, keep watch!  When Our Lord spoke on the matter he said, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who are entering by it are many.” (Mt 7:13) The only ambiguity is whether those who are entering into that gate escape.

It’s hazardous to rely on abstractions.  One must think concretely, and about one’s own case.  Consider, “Dare we hope that all golfers play par golf?” “Dare we hope that all pianists master the Pathetique sonata?”  These concrete questions are absurd.  Then what about, “Dare we hope that all human beings become canonizable saints before they die?” “Dare we hope that all of us become perfect?”

This is to ask the question about salvation concretely, because perfection is a condition of standing in the presence of God.


It would be easy at this point to turn to the doctrine of purgatory.  We risk being absurd, if we hope everyone is saved, but do not by the same token pray fervently for the many souls that are fairly certain to be in purgatory.  (See the homily of St. Josemaria Escriva entitled, “That All May Be Saved.”)

My interest, however, is with the universal call to holiness, which is a call to perfection, and how it must be at odds with the complacency I have been exploring, because being saved requires holiness.

Tellingly, the very first sermon in Newman’s eight volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons is entitled, “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness.” He says:

We are apt to deceive ourselves and to consider heaven a place like this earth; I mean, a place where everyone may choose and take his own pleasure. . . .The only difference we put between this world and the next, is that here, (as we know well,) men are not always sure, but there, we suppose they will be always sure, of obtaining what they seek after. And accordingly we conclude, that any man, whatever his habits, tastes, or manner of life, if once admitted into heaven, would be happy there.

Thus, he describes a complacency in Victorian England not unlike our own era: “Not that we altogether deny, that some preparation is necessary for the next world; but we do not estimate its real extent and importance. We think we can reconcile ourselves to God when we will; as if nothing were required in the case of men in general, but some temporary attention, more than ordinary, to our religious duties,— some strictness, during our last sickness,  in the services of the Church, as men of business arrange their letters and papers on taking a journey or balancing an account.”

Simply to put this common view in words, Newman says, is sufficient to refute it. But still he offers an argument. If we wanted to find an analog for heaven on earth, it would be a church:

For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. . . . Here we hear solely and entirely of God. We praise Him, worship Him, sing to Him, thank Him, confess to Him, give ourselves up to Him, and ask His blessing. And therefore, a church is like heaven; viz. because both in the one and the other, there is one single sovereign subject—religion—brought before us.

So if we do not yearn to be in Church, we should hardly think we are suited to heaven.

It is an analog after all.  Yet the fundamental correctness of Newman’s point was confirmed earlier this month, in how serious people reacted to the video of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna being turned into a dance club for a Catholic youth conference.

Christ’s first recorded word of public ministry is “Convert!”, that is, “Change your minds!” (Mk 1:15) He is asking for a paradigm shift, of sorts, but he’s asking it of us, not the Church.


*Image: The Church as the Path to Salvation by Andrea da Firenze, c. 1366 [Cappellone degli Spagnoli(Spanish Chapel), Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy]. The fresco is on the east wall of the chapel.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk