instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The marginal case is not the mean

This week's verisimilitudinous theory:

Catholic doctrine is that we retain our free wills -- in particular, our ability to confess or deny Jesus -- throughout our lives, up until the moment of death.

This doctrine has had a striking impact on the Catholic imagination. "You can be good and holy your whole life," we tell each other in the playground the day after we're taught this doctrine, "and if you have a bad thought just before you die, you'll go to hell." Any question as to why someone who is good and holy their whole life would have a bad thought just before they die is explained away by diabolical temptation.

The result of the way this Catholic doctrine is taught is to focus the attention on the thought you have just before you die, rather than on being good and holy your whole life. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, if you get a chance, but by all means be sure to pray for us at the hour of our death, when it really matters!

As time rolls along, the faithful start to think about the other side of the free-will-till-death coin. Sure, good and holy people can go to hell for a bad thought just as they die, but also evil and wicked people can go to heaven for a good thought just as they die. Any question as to why someone who is evil and wicked their whole life would have a good thought just before they die is explained away by Divine mercy.

The moment of death, in the Catholic imagination, has become radically discontinuous from every moment of life that leads up to it. The doctrine of free will has collapsed to a single, discrete, imperceptible choice, unrelated to the whole chain of choices the person makes while living. What grew into scrupulous concern over choosing death has degenerated into lax presumption of an effectively universal choice of life.

The morbid concentration on deathbed damnation as something a disciple of Jesus Christ, a true child of the Eternal Father, needs to live in fear of has transformed in the last generation or so into a "Get Out Of Hell Free" card. A story told to illuminate the far corners of a Catholic doctrine has become the ordinary, presumed way things happen. God's mercy is not so much infinite in such thinking, but guaranteed. The grace of salvation is an offer you can't refuse.

Whenever the outlier is taken for the average, conclusions are off-balance. In this case, they amount to indifferentism. Keeners and saints might still want to be good and holy prior to their moment of death, the thinking goes, but that sort of extra credit isn't really necessary. Normal people are good, but not holy -- and at they, they're sure to be good in a way that doesn't make other people uncomfortable. Such good people have nothing to fear judgment-wise from the moment of death: they aren't presuming their holiness to date will save them, so what's one more bad thought; and if God generally saves generally evil people, He will all the more surely make up whatever's lacking in generally good people.