Has Ted Kennedy been canonized? “I knew that when he left us he would go to heaven and help pass the bill,” Nancy Pelosi proclaimed recently, going on to assure us, “And now he can rest in peace. His dream for America’s families has become a reality.”
There is a problem here, which has more to do with theology than politics, and it provides a good opportunity to think about last things: four of them, to be precise.
Death—even when expected—is difficult to bear. Common sense teaches us to expect it; Benjamin Franklin leveled with us, declaring that it was certain; and Scripture reveals that it awaits us all. But we still grieve when someone crosses the threshold of time and eternity: A void is left by a loved one’s death, and few are excited for their own.
And judgment is right there, tagging along wherever death goes. We are taught to fear God in Scripture. Yes, we fear the just punishments—the loss of heaven and the pains of hell—but the highest form of fear is filial, a reverential fear of displeasing God because of who he is: a loving Father.
There have been unfortunate caricatures of God, within Christendom and without, as a surly, implacable judge eagerly awaiting the next soul to condemn. This is not, we’d have to admit, the predominant fault of our age, which tends to revolt at even the possibility of judgment (except for history’s worst criminals, and people we really, really despise—like the ones who send text messages while you're having a conversation).
Presumption and despair are the vicious alternatives to the theological virtue of hope, the virtue directed to an arduous but possible future good. Despair—that feeling any member of a small school’s sports team has had a taste of—is the conviction that a situation is hopeless, that all is lost: There’s nothing left to be done. Despair is a grave sin, St. Thomas teaches, that politely holds the door for other grave sins: When there’s no point to being good, why try at all?
Presumption, on the other hand, is an immoderate hope, either when man relies on his own power for something that is in fact beyond his power, or a false hope in God’s mercy—assuming that one can expect God’s mercy without being repentant, or that one will be received into heavenly glory without grace and the holy life that it inspires.
Proper Christian hope clings firmly to salvation—eternal bliss with God in heaven—as a distinct possibility. But it admits, at the same time, that we have no claim on it. Salvation is neither owed us, nor attainable by human effort. And hell—eternity apart from God—is no fiction, a convenient piece of propaganda for keeping the faithful paying their dues.
So, Nancy Pelosi is in no position to declare who is in heaven: The Church, not Congress, beatifies and canonizes. Both the former Speaker and those scandalized that the Senator from Massachusetts did not lead an exemplary Catholic life should pray for him out of the charity that characterizes any true Christian. And if we ever shudder at the thought of eternity cooped up with the coworker we dread seeing each day, in the glorious presence of the Most High, the petty (or not so petty) failings of our neighbor will not be a distraction—nor, thanks be to God, will our own. The Divine Essence captivates all who behold it.
A good theological (and thus pastoral) formation teaches one to console without canonizing. People shouldn’t head for the funerary repast confident that Grandma nodded at St. Peter as she waltzed right through the pearly gates. But leaving the church with the sense that someone's eternal fate is really a roll of the dice is no good either. Even people we assume are saintly, and whom God could not possibly refuse, are prayed for with hope in the salvific merits of Christ. And the people we assume will have lots to answer for should not be despaired of.
In either case the point is the same: Man looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. The Lord’s mercy is bounteous enough by far to accept even people who seem hopeless cases. And the devout should recall that the Lord had strong words for those sneaky interior sins, like pride and anger and lust. T. S. Eliot issued a warning to us all: “And the last temptation is the greatest treason/ to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Even those of us who say “Lord, Lord” may find ourselves on the hot seat when the book is brought forth, as the Requiem Mass foretells, in which all is contained.
But the Judge provides the ransom, and the grace of Christ is more than a divine Botox treatment that makes us look spiritually pretty: it renews interiorly. Theologians speak of an economy of grace. In the loving wisdom of Divine providence, the justified man actively participates in his sanctification, meriting graces for himself and others. And even after God has forgiven our sin, we are moved in grace to make satisfaction. Sin damages, grace repairs.
Purgatory is often mistakenly viewed as a bad thing—an obstacle Rome has placed between man and God. A proper understanding, however, reveals it to be a relief. Who of us is confident that, in articulo mortis, he will have reached perfect sanctification, primed and ready to stand forever in the sight of God?
Purgatory (in German, Fegefeuer—a cleansing fire) is not for those awaiting sentencing, nor is it anyone’s final stop: There are four last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—not five. Purgatory doesn’t make the cut. Following the particular judgment, it is where those whose salvation is assured are polished off. And it is precisely why prayers for the dead have an effect—those being purified benefit from prayers and good works offered on their behalf.
Heresies die a slow death, and some more than others tend to make Dominicans a bit hot under the collar. Pelagius taught that grace wasn’t necessary for salvation: It makes it a whole lot easier, to be sure, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you. It survives today in the pervading sense that as long as you are basically a good person and avoid anything outrageously harmful to others, heaven is yours. What’s more, if you’re really good to God, he will be really good to you—just ask Joel Osteen.
No one buys heaven on his own dime, and no one’s sin is too much for God to handle. Grace precedes any truly good act, and God can redeem even the saddest of most sordid of lives. The Lord alone probes the mind and tests the heart.
The punch line is that God loves us, not because we’re good, but because he is. Death and hope walk hand in hand.
Sebastian White, O.P., is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer fellow at First Things. He is studying for the priesthood.
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