Predestination & Catholic Dogma

There is little to no doubt that the average reader of this site will be familiar with the term “predestination.” And if the reader is familiar with the term, there is also a good chance that the term stirs up an instinctual response—assuming that the reader is a catholic, that is. Heresy. Predestination is heresy. One of the most horrid heresies there is!

And to those who have such a reaction, this catechism excerpt will surely come as a shock!

To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace… For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness. [1]

To reiterate the point relevant to us at present: It is infallible Catholic dogma that God has and enacts an “eternal plan of ‘predestination.'”

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. It is undeniable that at least some of the readers of this post will not be familiar with the term “predestination,” and so it needs to be definedbut herein lies the very problem of the term: it has multiple senses, and only one of those senses is true. Formulated most basically, and in the most encompassing manner of the senses, “predestination” refers to the notion that God predetermines who will be saved, and consequently who will be damned, even before we are conceived.

It is in elaborating on what exactly is meant by this, and as to how it takes place, that heresy arises. Now, the Catholic sense has been elaborated on by many great theologiansmost notably by St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine of Hippo. Unfortunately, for the average reader, I’m of the opinion that their writings are more likely to confuse than to illuminate. Therefore, I will do my best to accurately distill the basics of their teachings. For the sake of clarity, Thomistic-Aristotelian vocabulary will be used.

Let us return to our general definition then: predestination is the notion that God predetermines who will be saved, and consequently who will be damned, even before we are conceived. This general definition is in accordance with Catholic dogma. Therefore, we will now elaborate on itelucidating the Catholic sense of the term.

First, we will ask what the efficient cause of predestination is. That is to ask, what temporally or ontologically brought about God’s decision as to who would ultimately attain salvation? Quite obviously: nothing. For it is demonstrable that God is perfectly simple [2], and therefore lacking composition of any kind, making His will one and the same as Himselfeternal, immutable, uncaused. Therefore, because God’s will is indistinguishable from His very existence, nothing temporally or ontologically precedes it, given that nothing temporally or ontologically precedes God (such would be absurd). Wherefore it is clear that nothing causes God’s choice as to who is saved and who is damned in the sense of the efficient cause (i.e. that which brings it into existence), since God can have no efficient cause, and because God’s will is Himself.

Therefore we turn to asking why God made this choice, rather than what brought this choice about. In other words, we want to know what the final end of God’s predestination isfor what purpose does God predestine some to salvation and others to damnation? The answer lies in our catechism excerpt:

To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace… For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness. [1]

To put it another way: God, being omnipresent and omniscient, and therefore being aware of any and all possible outcomes which will take place (even accounting for the free choices of mankind given any particular set of circumstances), sets into motion from the moment of creation the sequence of causal events which will produce His ultimately desired outcome: the greatest good possible when accounting for human failings [3].

Consider it under the following analogy: when you watch a film, you exist outside of its timeline. If you’ve seen it before, you know what each character will choose to do, but have not forced them to choose to do it. Now imagine that you have seen multiple versions of this film, and in each of them bad choices were made, as well as good ones, but they differ insofar as their starting points lead to their outcomes diverging. Imagine you love each of these characters too much to choose any version of the film in which they simply do not exist. Now you must pick the version which has the ending you deem best; you must choose the beginning of the film which leads to the desired end of the film. Sure, it would be best if none of the characters made bad decisions in one of these versions, but in each of them they did make bad decisions nevertheless, and you respect them so much as to not override them in that choice. In an analogous manner, as “to God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy,” God accounts for, without overriding, the free will of men in His planning of salvation. To extend the analogy (which isn’t perfect, as no analogies are), God picked the version of the film which had the objectively best ending. Events transpired which led some to freely reject salvation, while others accepted it, but nonetheless the best outcome out of these less-than-perfect outcomes took place. It is this desired ending that is termed the final end, or final cause, of God’s predestining of mankind [4].

To recapitulate, predestination in the Catholic sense can be summarized as follows: In the first moment of creation, God set into motion the series of events which ultimately results in the greatest good while still respecting the free will of the angels and human beings; this necessarily means that in the instant of creation, God predetermined who would ultimately be saved, and who would not be (though nothing brought about this decision, properly speaking)yet each one of those individuals in time also freely chose for themselves to either accept or reject salvation.


Works Cited:
[1] CCC 600
[2] Aquinas. ST-I. Q3. A8.
[3] Aquinas. ST-I. Q2. A3.
[4] Aquinas. ST-I. Q23. A5.

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10 thoughts on “Predestination & Catholic Dogma

  1. Are you sure a “greatest of all possible worlds” approach is best, especially as taken from the STh I q. 2 a. 3 (which does not make this claim)? It seems to open a can of worms… Is it really the case that it is absolutely better that THESE people be saved rather than THOSE people? Why is it not “better” that one more be saved? Why is it not better that all be saved, especially seeing that this is God’s antecedent will? What exactly is the measure here of “best”? What criteria are used? If one simply says that it is the best because God made it so, we would seem to be forced to confess double-predestination, which is a wicked doctrine… He can’t make a world “so that” these people resist sufficient grace and sin because that is the best world.

    Maybe this can be worked out, but the whole Leibnizian paradigm seems super complicated. So much extra work to do.

    Maybe providence in this sense is inscrutable, just as the particular application of mercy through efficient grace is inscrutable? God created in such and such a way, and why or even whether that is “the best” is unable to be known? It does not seem to violate mercy or justice for God to create a world with creatures who only resist Him freely, with none being saved. But He didn’t choose that creation, because He simply wanted to make a different one. It is the best act of creation in THAT ACT of creation – it is done exactly how He wants, but since He does not owe His creatures anything in a positive sense, He does not have to give all the grace He possibly could.

    What do you think?

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    1. You misunderstand; the argument is not that we are living in the best of all possible worlds–far from it, considering that the best of all possible worlds would be one in which the fall of man or the angels never occurred (because it would be better “that all be saved”). But God is subject to non-contradiction, and therefore the circumstances which lead some to freely deny Him will often be the same as those which will cause others to freely love Him. This differs from double-predestination as St Thomas explains in ST-I Q23. A3. Yet He loves each person too much to deny them the good of existence on account of their forseen denial. Moreover, the determination of it being better for one to be saved over another is in accordance with the highness of their calling, and thus too the degree to which God loves them, and with which goods He wills towards them (i.e. God prefers greater good to lesser good, and therefore to save those who will be the greatest rather than the least) [ST-I. Q23. A4.]. “Best” here is reference to the immedeatly aforementioned determinations of the goods God wills.

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    2. Sorry for the late reply.

      It can’t be considered begging the question that one be saved due to the highness of their calling (if by “due to” we mean the final cause), in the same manner that it is not begging the question to assert that one writes a paper in order for it to be written. The paper’s being written does not precede in time the paper’s writing, but nonetheless it is for the sake of being written that the paper is wrote. So St Thomas says “Thus we might say that God pre-ordained to give glory on account of merit…” However, this is when speaking of predestination in part only, and not as a whole, which includes not only the gift of Grace (the writing of the paper) but also the calling itself (the paper being written).

      Thus, when speaking of predestination as a whole, we now include God’s decision as to what each person is called to. And as to what was the efficient cause is of God’s deciding this, there is none (as nothing in God has an efficient cause). And thus St Augustine says, “He intended to give His grace freely—that is, with no merits of theirs, either of faith or of works, preceding.”

      To put it another way, the Grace which God gives us is for the sake of us achieving our calling, which is inclusive of our good actions, and in this sense our calling merits Grace, but the calling itself is without cause—or at least without a cause human reason can surmise.

      Hope that helps!

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      1. And why does one person have a greater final cause than another? Not their natural merit… Only merit based on the cooperation with grace – which itself is a function of additional grace which also cannot be earned.

        Thus does the de auxiliis death spiral begin.

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      2. As stated earlier, God’s decision as to one person having a greater final cause is to what St Augustine is referring to as “secret,” and what St Thomas refers to as efficiently uncaused.

        Their higher calling cannot be said to be merited by cooperation with Grace, unless you mean “merited” in the sense of their cooperation being the efficient cause of their calling’s realization.

        Now, the the calling given to a person which is not dependent on whether or not they realize that calling can be said to merit Grace, insofar as God distributes Grace for the sake of the highest callings, as St Thomas explains.

        The predetermination of that calling, however, is without efficient cause, as the calling is not determined by the actions which realize it through cooperation with Grace, but immediately upon creation by God.

        You seem to be talking of predestination as inclusive of the higher calling, which is not what is being treated of in terms of the final cause, but only in terms of the lacking of an efficient cause.

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      3. God must actually cause efficient grace, which is part of the unfolding of the process of reaching one’s predestined state of glory. God is the cause of that grace, which actually must affect a soul such as to move it to action. How then, is freedom protected, and how are we to understand sufficient grace as really sufficient?

        Thus did Augustine say the topic was off limits…

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