May Catholics Endorse Universalism?

by Justin Shaun Coyle, Ph.D.

“Hopeful.” That’s what Catholics typically call the eschatology native to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Some Catholics, however, find in it only despair. Some few, that is, deny that scripture is eschatologically ambigu­ous; that freedom, ours and God’s, consists finally in liberum arbitrium; that, pace 1 Tim. 2:4, God definitely can but perhaps might not save all;1 that New Testament hope excludes certainty; and that suspension of judgment is not itself already a judgment. And yet Catholic misericordes are routinely counseled that Balthasar’s “hopeful” universa­lism plots the outer limit of Catholic thought. A shift from the subjunctive to the indicative is doctrinally impossible—though just why and how and where often remains unstated.2

Into this unrest and astride a dusty bronco rides David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved.3 The book extends the guiding hand for which Catholic universalists have long reached in the dark. Only before they take it their counselors return. They caution against welcoming this rider from the east, unbound as he is by their law and custom. Their counsel reminds us that for Catholics Hart’s book moots a double question: Is universalism true? And, if so, does Catholic doctrine allow its faithful to endorse it? Hart answers only the first (in the affirmative). The second question hardly troubles Hart as an Orthodox. But it does and should trouble Catholics who respect their counselors and who love their law and custom.

Suppose speculatively and for a moment that Hart’s wager—that all shall be saved—is correct. May a Catholic faithful to the magisterium endorse it? That’s the question I’d like here to entertain. The answer to it interests fellow Catholics more than the conventional summary-followed-by-two-questions review might. Discerning Hart’s arguments isn’t difficult; deciding what doctrinal sense Catholics may make of them is.

Still I suspect the arguments themselves pose less trouble. Catholics are doctrinally free, for instance, to prefer Eriugena to Thomas on predestination or Nyssen to Augustine on the totus Christus. Up to a point, anyway—the real doctrinal snag arrives only at the conclusion to which Hart’s arguments bend. So again: May Catholics faithful to the magisterium endorse that conclusion? The answer is, I think, yes, but with some difficulty.
 Or so my thought experiment here. Before it begins, two clarifications and then a warning. By “Catholic,” first, I mean those presently belonging to churches in communion with and answerable to the bishop of Rome, whether Latin or Ruthenian or Syro-Malankaran or Italo-Albanian or something else besides. And by “faithful to the magisterium,” second, I stipulate Catholic theologians whose conscience or error has not lead them to dissent.4 And the warning? In what follows I speak as a Catholic to other Catholics. With them I share obligations of obedience to ordinaries, principles of defined doctrine, and methods of navigating each that may appear exotic to other Christians. What use or interest it bears (if any) for the latter I leave for them to decide.


The teaching office of the Church sorts churchly truths into three kinds.5 The first are truths de fide credenda, which take as their objects inter alia doctrines christological and trinitarian and mariological and eucharistic. Truths like these are, the Church says, explicitly and divinely revealed when promulgated and defined. When that happens, these truths demand assent from all the Catholic faithful. Truths of a second sort we call de fide tenenda. These truths are not formally revealed like the first but are somehow logically entailed by them. And they’re no less binding for it. Truths of a third sort are religioso voluntatis et intellectus obsequio adhaerenda. These truths belong neither to revelation as such or among its logically necessary entailments. They are instead indispensable aids for understanding the former two. Popes or the collegium episcoporum or both may teach them, but they are not as such taught definitively. Catholics owe them obsequium religiosum, if not unflagging assent. Better, then, to agree with them than not, lest we risk the “erroneous or … rash or dangerous.”6

Not all Catholic doctrine sorts neatly into these three categories. Sometimes popes write books on mercy, bishops tweet about gay pride parades, pastors comment on presidential elections, catechists instruct children on Noah’s flood, and so on. All that’s doctrina, teaching. But none of it necessarily or definitionally binds the faithful because none of it necessarily or definitionally bears magisterial weight. Truths within this fourth category, then, command no assent.

Where among these truths is the teaching on hell’s eternal torments? At the lowest level the doctrine’s almost ubiquitous. Nearly all of the West’s brightest lights taught some version of eternal torment. And the doctrine embroiders our hymns, liturgy, prayer, iconography, and literature. Infernalism, then, weighs heavily in (Western) Catholic memory. But majority consensus at this fourth level renders minority positions only improbable. And it says nothing whatever with respect to binding doctrine.

And the next level? Here again, eternal hell’s presence across synodal acta, papal missives, and condemnations by local ordinaries commands obsequium religiosum from Catholics. But it needn’t, at this level anyway,7 command the assent owed to de fide truths. Still the obsequium religiosum infernalism demands renders disagreement with it precarious, maybe even perilous (tuto doceri non potest). Thus its opponents of necessity bear the onus probandi, a yoke under which Catholic universalists must learn to labor—at least if they cannot divine a better interpretation of these doctrines.

Truths of this third kind may slow but cannot at length stop Catholic assent to Hart’s conclusion. The real question, then, asks whether there be any doctrines de fide (whether credenda or tenenda) that might.


Where are de fide definitions to be found? Just what constitutes de fide statements is itself a quaestio disputata among Catholics, one I’ll neither settle nor sketch here. To avoid stacking the deck, I limit the following florilegium to dogmatic definitions which (a) put the point the strongest and (b) whose binding status on the faithful most scholars regard­less of persuasion admit.8 I draw these sample definitions from among the twenty-one ecumenical councils and from papal documents that scholars agree to be uncontrover­sially binding.9 Together they yield at least three groups of de fide definitions that seem to foil Hart’s advance into the papal states. These are (1) that hell is eternal; (2) that mortal sin is different from venial and its just desert is hell; and (3) that subjective certainty of eschatological ends is banned.

As to (1) hell’s eternity. Its earliest champion is the Quicumque—or, if you prefer, the Athanasian Symbol—which ends:

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire (ignem aeternum). This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.10

And then there’s Lateran IV (1215):

All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment (poenam perpetuam) with the devil, for the former eternal glory (gloriam sempiternam) with Christ11.

And the First Council of Lyons (1245):

If anyone dies in mortal sin without repentance, beyond any doubt, he will be tortured forever (perpetuo cruciatur) by the flames of everlasting hell (aeternae gehennae).12

As to (2) mortal sin’s difference from venial and desert of hell. Let’s begin with the Second Council of Lyons’s fourth session (1274), recycled later in Nequaquam sine dolore to the Armenians (1321) and at Florence (1449):

As for the souls of those who die in mortal sin (mortali peccato) or with original sin only, they go down immediately to hell (mox in infernum descendere), to be punished, however, with different punishments.13

And again in Benedict XII’s constitution Benedictus Deus (1336):

Moreover, we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin (actuali peccato mortali) go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell.14

And, if we admit conciliar canons, there’s Trent’s decree on justification (1547):

Canon 25: If anyone says that the just man sins at least venially in every good work or (what is even more intolerable) that he sins mortally (mortaliter) and therefore merits eternal punishment (poenas aeternas) and that the only reason why he is not damned is that God does not impute those works unto damnation, let him be anathema.15


Canon 27: If anyone says that there is no mortal sin (mortale peccatum) except that of unbelief or that grace, once received, cannot be lost by any other sin, no matter how grievous and great, except that of unbelief, let him anathema.16

And as to (3), the ban on subjective certainty of ends. The strongest witness comes from the twelfth chapter of Trent’s decree on justification (1547):

No one, so long as he lives in this mortal condition, ought to be so presumptuous (praesumere debet) about the hidden mystery of divine predestination as to determine which certainty that he is definitely among the number of the predestined, as if it were true either that the one justified cannot sin anymore or that, if he sins, he should promise himself an assured repentance (certam resipiscentiam). For without special revelation (ex speciali revelatione) it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for himself.17

And (again) if we admit conciliar canons:

Canon 15: If anyone says that a man who has been reborn and justified is bound by faith to believe that he is certainly among the number of the predestined (se certo esse in numero praedestinatorum), let him be anathema.18

Canon 16: If anyone says that he has absolute and infallible certitude (certo habiturum absoluta et infallibili certitudine) that he will surely have the great gift of perseverance to the end (in finem), unless he has learned this by a special revelation (ex speciali revelatione), let him be anathema.19

That, anyway, is a sample of the size of things.


That these doctrines seem prima facie to forfend universalism seems clear—at least until we raise the specter of how to interpret doctrine.

Some thought the question both easy and obvious. In Pius X’s 1910 Oath against Modernism, for instance, the signatories affirm that “the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously.”20 Similar, if less purple, statements conclude Dei Filius (1870) and pepper Humani Generis (1950). On this view, the meaning of any given doctrine appears self-evident. And it’s identical, too, it seems, to whatever the doctrine originally meant in history. Doctrine very nearly interprets itself.

Whatever its merits for staying relativism, the interpretive frame of this view—Denzinger-theologie,21 its opponents tagged it—overcorrects only to make nonsense of the very doctrines it means to protect. Take, for example, the anathema which closes the Nicene Symbol. It anathematizes whomever confesses that the Son differs from the Father by either hypostasis or essence (ἢ ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας).22 Here Nicaea’s original historical meaning—trading as it does on a middle- and neoplatonic conflation between ousia and hypostasis—just obviously isn’t Chalcedon’s (to say nothing of Constantinople II or III).23 The latter teaches not only that the Son differs from the Father hypostatically, but indeed also essentially (at least secundum humanitatem). Taken historically, Dei Filius’ insistence that we hold quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est terminates in ouroboric self-consumption.

Enter the historicist, gloating over another case of theologian braggadocio that rides hellbent and roughshod over history only to disclose its ignorance. But this merely indulges the other side of the same error. The historicist and the Denzinger-theologe both curiously reduce doctrine’s meaning to history. That’s a mistake: the meaning of doctrine may be at least historical, but it is first and last theological. Better, then, to affirm that Dei Filius is exactly right that to the extent that all doctrine has the triune and incarnate Lord as its object, its meaning is always the same. But like the incarnate Lord it speaks, doctrine’s meaning need not—and in some places cannot—remain merely historical.24 Which means Dei Filius’s own doctrinal statement about the meaning of doctrine requires theological interpretation that it, precisely as itself doctrine, cannot provide.

On this view, dogma cannot interpret itself anymore than it can define itself. And if it belongs to bishops to teach and promulgate and define doctrine, it belongs sometimes to theologians, for good or ill, to interpret it. But how?26 The International Theological Commission’s 1989 “The Interpretation of Dogma” tenders some suggestions. One is that the interpretation of doctrine is itself a properly theological question; another is that develop­ments in scriptural hermeneutics may succor dogmatic hermeneutics.27 These are more suggestive than probative. Questions follow: May Divino Afflante Spiritu’s affirmation of biblical form-critical apply, Dulles asked, to doctrine?28 If so, how so? And what of Dei Verbum’s entreaty to honor tradition and scripture “with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”?29 May the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s teaching that both fundamentalism and historicism obscure theological meaning extend to doctrine?30 None of these questions seem clear or settled. But then precisely as such, we Catholics owe them cautious exploration.

The Church allows and sometimes even encourages interpretive promiscuity of doctrine exactly because she knows her story. Posterity has, that is, sometimes vindicated artful if minority interpretations of earlier doctrines. No vignette is starker than St Maximus Confessor’s. His dyothelite reading of Chalcedon and Constantinople II—overwhelmingly in the minority and without much explicit patristic precedent—and refusal to “accept the words as they are (ἁπλᾶς τὰς φωνὰς)” won him torture, exile, and death.31 For all Maximus knew he died a heretic, condemned by bishop and patriarch and pope and emperor. Only it wasn’t to be. Just nineteen years after Maximus died, Constantinople III acquitted and even appropriated dyothelitism, anathematizing opposition thereto.

The lesson here is plain: “The fact that a particular interpretation of some doctrine has been widely taught by theologians, assumed by the faithful at worship, implied in the church’s art and liturgy, and even itself given doctrinal weight by the magisterium suggests nothing about whether some additional specification of what the doctrine means, perhaps first offered speculatively by theologians, may in time come to be acceptable to the Church—and thereby to be seen as the truth it is.”32 More: “The silence of the Church about a novel construal of a doctrinal topos leaves entirely open the question of whether that novelty is acceptable.” To assume otherwise overestimates what is now doctrine by underestimating what might become so.

My point’s not to pen a primer on doctrinal hermeneutics. Nor is it to condone any slipshod interpretation of doctrine. It is only to note that sometimes, probably very infrequently, faithfulness to and love of the Church’s doctrine demands a theologically speculative interpretation that prima facie cuts against its grain. This needn’t give scandal, not least because whether a certain reading serves or (more likely) betrays the doctrine it interprets is not anyway and finally for the Catholic theologian to say. Neither need the above contradict Vatican I’s ban on refining doctrine “on the specious ground and title  of a more profound understanding.”33 The point’s only to notice that history teaches just how precarious—and Protestant—it is to assume what’s “specious” and what’s not quite ahead of time. Sometimes Christ’s vicar defines how we should interpret certain theological doctrines theologically; most-times not. Catholic theologians should receive both cases as the gifts they are. But never should they cease interpreting doctrine theologically. And sometimes this demands scrutinizing “the words as they are.”

For Catholics, then, dogmatic theology can and sometimes must yield speculative theol­ogy. Catholics should for this reason understand doctrine to be generative rather than restrictive of thought. Dogmatic theology theology and speculative theology are therefore symbionts standing in need of one another.


The line sketched above suggests that the properly Catholic way to entertain universalism lies not around or behind but rather through doctrine. A distinctly Catholic universalism need not remain covetous of Orthodox and Protestant doctrinal lack on eschatology. Neither can it tensively and dramatically hope against hope that the above de fide truths finally herald a future that never comes. If doctrine generates rather than restricts thought, then the way forward is borne of intimacy with (and not distance from) doctrine.

How can doctrine that seems to prevent universalism birth it? Here’s a thumbnail sketch, however rough and ready.

Suppose for a moment that the logic of hell obeys the illogic of the sin that constructs it. I say “illogic” because of the curious way sin exists. If evil be the privatio boni, then sin’s existence is exhaustively vampiric. That is, it feasts and depends entirely upon the blood of its host—the good. Sin therefore has no proper act, only a perversion of a good act. The sinner, it follows, is at once sin’s creature and its host: the one on whom, both with and without her consent, sin feeds. In this frenzy discerning sin’s creature from its host will be nearly impossible. She will do what she hates—only not she, but rather the sin courting and colonizing and consuming her (Rom. 7). Only death, natural or baptismal, brings division and therefore clarity (Rom. 6:21–23). And when it arrives, the sinner descends immediately into hell’s eternal flames.

What smolders there? Her “works” (opus arerit), for she herself shall be saved by fire (salvus erit … per ignem) (1 Cor. 3:15). What are these works? Presumably the opera carnis, works of the flesh: sins (Gal. 5:19-21). Together these incarnate the corpus peccati, the body of sin, which Christ must destroy to free us from sin (Rom. 6). This is vetus homo noster, our old man, the one who sinned in Adam and dies on Christ’s cross (Rom. 6:6; 5:12), the very same whose members Paul exhorts us mortificate, to slay (Col. 3:5–6). Christ himself parables a splitting-in-two (Matt. 24:51; Lk. 12:46), an uprooting of plants not planted by God (Matt. 15:13), an amputation of a traitorous eye to save the body (Mk. 9:43; Matt. 5:29–30). So construed, the dominical division between sheep and goats divides not sets of persons, elect versus reprobate, but rather very selves (Matt. 5:32–33). What descends to hell, that is, is not she—not, that is, her hypostasis which binds body to soul. No, it’s rather the sinner: the shadow or wraith or false self her sin has fashioned from whom purgatory’s flames have painfully rent her. More, the shadow’s eternal destruction guarantees her beatitude; as Ambrose knew, Idem homo et salvatur ex parte, et condemnatur ex parte.34 Only when the former things are passed away (prima abierunt) shall God dry all tears and pronounce death no more.

This interpretation has the benefit of maintaining Catholic distinctives (and thus the Church’s call for a nexus mysteriorum). It affirms hell’s eternity without pettifogging about differences among ἀιώνιος and perpetuus and aeternus. It secures a fixed interval between hell’s eternal flames from purgatory’s temporary ones. It affirms doctrine’s distinction between mortal and venial sin, along with its concomitant claim that the first merits eternal punishment. It supports Trent’s ban on subjective certainty, since we do not know here below precisely which “I” will be saved exactly because we do not yet know who we really are until flame reveals it. Last, the above sketch even permits us to revisit Master Lombard’s infamous graf on the blessed delighting in the torments of the damned.35 Indeed he’s more right than he knew: the eternal destruction of false selves does not just contrib­ute to but indeed somehow constitutes beatitude. Hell guarantees that the blessed shall never again suffer sin’s damage. The Catholic should on this highly speculative intepretation endorse universalism not by hoping nobody in fact ends up in hell (à la Balthasar) but rather by insisting that in some sense everyone must.


Like all speculative interpretations of doctrine, the above bears the vice of relative (though not total) novelty.37 It capitalizes too much, probably, on doctrine’s sometime ambiguity over the metaphysical identity—variously qui, anima, or homo—of the reprobate. It leans too heavily, probably, into the New Testament’s mythos.38 And it hazards ontologizing evil, though hell here “exists” only in the equivocal sense that evil ever does. But for those who feel the force of Hart’s Trygaeus-like wager that if God should abandon any creature his orisons should become curses and his temples latrines, what other way is there? What hangs in the balance isn’t one theoretical model of the gospel among others, but rather the gospel itself. Some few must therefore chance the perils that attend reinterpreting doctrine, exactly because not doing so seems seems to them more “erroneous … rash and dangerous.”


So yes, Catholics faithful to the Church’s teaching office may with some difficulty entertain Hart’s conclusion that all shall be saved—though they needn’t affirm the alternative previewed above. More, they may and should do so with as much vigor and vim and vision as they can rally. (Those lacking may borrow some from Hart, who has all in abundance.) Campaigns for speculative interpretations of doctrine like this one are, remember, nearly as ancient as the faith herself. Athanasius and Hilary and Maximus mounted them, for instance—each were exiled and one killed not for his personal belief, but rather for his refusal to keep silent about it. The moral to their story: whereof one cannot yet speak dogmatically, to amend Wittgenstein only slightly, thereof one may be fervently speculative.

Of course this cuts both ways. Infernalists too should, on this view, match those callow misericordes with their much larger standing army. But they should do so knowing full well that their view of universalism’s theological impossibility is also, whatever its popularity, itself an interpretation and not a relecture of defined doctrine. And that’s because there is, as of yet and if I’m right, no clear teaching against interpreting de fide doctrine to support universalism.

Until (if ever) there is, Catholic theologians are left to their work. Future doctrinal definitions may—as they always do—prove some wrong and some right. Today, however, there’s little reason to worry. Our task as Catholic theologians is not first and last “getting it right.” No, our task is to submit what we take to be right to the magisterium’s scrutiny.39 Most will, as a result, sink Peter-like into the waves as they disembark to follow the Lord’s call. But who wouldn’t judge the risk worth the attempt to take his hand?

(Revised: 1 November 2022)


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 167: “It would be in God’s power to allow the grace that flows into the world from the self-sacrifice of his Son … to grow powerful enough to become his ‘efficacious’ grace for all sinners. But precisely this is something for which we can only hope.”

[2] A common move is to point up passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or even in Denzinger without asking after the varied levels of authority its pronouncements enjoy. Michael McClymond’s The Devil’s Redemption, for instance, indulges this “word-search” method. The trouble here is that the Adobe Acrobat’s “search” feature, like both the CCC and Denzinger, obviously fails to differentiate among the various authorities of its contents. A common passage marshaled against universalism is CCC §393: “there is no repentance for men after death.” But the footnote here references the Damascene’s De fide orthodoxa 2.4—not a council or a papal definition. And as Benedict XVI wrote as head of the CDF, “the individual doctrines that the Catechism affirms have no other authority than that which they already possess.” Even footnotes which do reference various magisterial teachings—CCC §1035, for instance—rarely discriminate authoritatively among, say, scripture, passages from the roman missal, apostolic letters, encyclicals, conciliar canons, and conciliar decrees. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Optimism of the Redeemed,” Communio 20.3 (1993): 479.

[3] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[4] Outlines for which are found in the CDF’s “Donum Veritatis, or On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” (1990), §31.

[5] A variety of magisterial teachings elaborate the three kinds of truth. The clearest, most recent, and most definitive is the CDF’s “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei” (1998).

[6] CDF, “Doctrinal Commentary,” §11.

[7] It is of course possible for these truths to ascend to de fide levels. The Marian dogmas are the best recent example of this.

[8] This conservative criteria rules out Justinian’s fifteen anti-Origenist canons, which may or may not have been read at Constantinople II. Their dubious historical status leads Norman P. Tanner to refuse their inclusion in his Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, though some have challenged his decision. See Fr Aidan Kimel’s adroit summary of the debate here. Still I, following Brian Daley and Kallistos Ware, rather doubt inclusion of these canons would deliver a ban on universalism, since the sort condemned there describes something rather closer to the cosmology of Evagrius than that of Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, or even Hart.

[9] As ever, there’s a debate within the literature over just which pre-Vatican I papal documents contain defined doctrine—which, that is, invoke the pontiff’s ex cathedra infallibility. For a larger list (twelve-thirteen documents), see Louis Billot’s Tractatus de ecclesia Christi (Rome: Ex Typographia Polyglotta, 1898-1900) and Edmond Dublanchy’s entry on infallibility in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 7 (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1927), 1703f. For a shorter list (seven documents), see Klaus Schatz, “Welche bisherigen päpstlichen Lehrentscheidungen sind ‘ex cathedra’? Historische und theologische Überlegungen,” Dogmengeschichte und katholische Theologie (Würzburg: Echter, 1985), 404–422. Sullivan summarizes the debate in Creative Retrieval, 80–92.

[10] Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. Peter Hünermann, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012) §76: “Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam aeternam, qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum.”

[11] Norman P. Tanner Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 230: “Qui omnes cum suis propriis corporibus resurgent, quae nunc gestant, ut recipient secundum merita sua, sive bona fuerint sive mala, illi cum diabolo poenam perpetuam et isti cum Christo gloriam sempiternam.”

[12] Denzinger, Enchiridion §839: “Si quis autem absque paenitentia in peccato mortali dedicit, hic procul dubio aeternae gehennae ardoribus cruciatur.”

[13] Denzinger, Enchiridion §858: “Illorum autem animas, qui in mortali peccato vel cum solo originali decedunt, mox in infernum descendere, poenis tamen disparibus puniendas.”

[14] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1001: “Diffinimus insuper, quod secundum Dei ordinationem communem animae decedentium in actuali peccato mortali mox post mortem suam ad inferna descendunt, ubi poenis infernalibus cruciantur.”

[15] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1575: “Si quis in quolibet bono opere iustum saltem venialiter peccare dixerit, aut (quod intolerabilius est) mortaliter, atque ideo poenas aeternas mereri, tantumque ob id non damnari, quia Deus ea opera non imputet ad damnationem: anathema sit.”

[16] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1577: “Si quis dixerit, nullum esse mortale peccatum nisi infidelitatis, aut nullo alio quantumvis gravi et enormi praeterquam infidelitatis peccato semel acceptam gratiam amitti: anathema sit.”

[17] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1540: “Nemo quoque, quamdiu in hac mortalitate vivitur, de arcano divinae predestinationis mysterio usque adeo praesumere debet, ut certo statuat, se omnino esse in numero praedestinatorum quasi verum esset, quod iustificatus aut amplius peccare non possit aut, si peccavit, certam sibi resipiscentiam promittere debeat. Nam, nisi ex speciali revelatione, sciri non potest, quos Deus sibi elegerit.”

[18] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1565: “Si quis dixerit, hominem renatum et iustificatum teneri ex fide ad credendum, se certo esse in numero praedestinatorum: anathema sit.”

[19] Denzinger, Enchiridion §1566: “Si quis magnum illud usque in finem perseverantiae donum se certo habiturum absoluta et infallibili certitudine dixerit, nisi hoc ex speciali revelatione didicerit: anathema sit.”

[20] The oath, originally embedded within Pius X’s motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum, remained requisite of all clergy and seminary professors until 1967, when it was rescinded by the CDF with Paul VI’s approval.

[21] See especially Karl Rahner, “Membership of the Church according to the Teaching of Pius XII’s Encyclical ‘Mystici Corporis Christi’,” Theological Investigations II:2 and Yves Congar, “Du bon usage de ‘Denzinger’,” Situations et tâches présentes de la théologie (Paris: Cerf, 1967), 111–113.

[21] Tanner, Decrees, 5.

[22] Chalcedon’s definition insists that the Son is consubstantial with both the Father (ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρὶ κατὰ τὴν θεότητα) and with humans (ὁμοούσιον ἡμῖν τὸν αὐτὸν κατὰ τὴν ἀνθρωπότητα), and that “the property of both natures (τῆς ἰδιότητος ἑκατέρας φύσεως) is preserved and comes together into a single person (μίαν ὑπόστασιν)” who precisely isn’t the Father. Tanner, Decrees, 86–87. The problem’s reduced but not erased in Nicaea’s Latin. It avoids the problem that attends “hypostasis,” but it forbids talk of the Son belonging to another substantia. This is exactly what Chalcedon later claims: consubtantialem Patri secundum deitatem et consubstantialem nobis eundem secundum humanitatem.

[23] ITC, “The Interpretation of Dogma” §2: “The presentation of the revealed truth is a testimony to God’s word in and by means of human language. It shares in the definitive and final character of the divine truth that appeared in Jesus Christ, as it also shares in the temporal character of all human language.”

[24]  DV §40: “To be sure, theology and the magisterium are of diverse natures and missions and cannot be confused. Nonetheless they fulfill two vital roles in the Church which must interpenetrate and enrich each other for the service of the people of God. It is the duty of the pastors by virtue of the authority they have received from Christ himself to guard this unity and to see that the tensions arising from life do not degenerate into divisions… As for theologians, by virtue of their own proper charisms, they have the responsibility of participating in the building up of Christ’s body in unity and truth. Their contribution is needed more than ever, for evangelization on a world scale requires the efforts of the whole people of God… Certainly it is one of the theologian’s tasks to give a correct interpretation to the texts of the magisterium and to this end he employs various hermeneutical rules.”

[25] Though hermeneutics of doctrine is a developing discipline, there are a few helps. Principally but not only: Piet Schoonenberg’s Die Interpretation des Dogmas (Dusseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 1969), Avery Dulles, SJ’s The Survival of Dogma (New York: Crossroads, 1971), and Francis A. Sullivan’s Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1996).

[26] Its guiding question, however, is exactly right: “The question, then, of the interpretation of dogma brings us face to face with the fundamental problems of theology.”

[27] Avery Dulles, SJ, poses this question in his “The Hermeneutics of Dogmatic Statements,” The Survival of Dogma, 176.

[28] DV 9: “Quapropter utraque pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia suscipienda et veneranda est.”

[29] Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”: “When fundamentalists relegate exegetes to the role of translators only (failing to grasp that translating the Bible is already a work of exegesis) and refuse to follow them further in their studies, these same fundamentalists do not realize that for all their very laudable concern for total fidelity to the word of God, they proceed in fact along ways which will lead them far away from the true meaning of the biblical texts, as well as from full acceptance of the consequences of the incarnation.”

[30] Here Maximus’s dispute with Theodosius, bishop of Caesarea Bithynia, already anticipates post-Vatican I tensions. “Theodosius: ‘You have to accept the words as they are’. Maximus: ‘Please tell me the difference between the words as they are and the words as they are embellished.’ Theodosius: ‘That you accept the word as it is, and do not scrutinize its meaning.’ Maximus: ‘If according to you one ought not scrutinize the words of Scripture and of the Fathers, we are rejecting all Scripture, both the old and the new. For I have heard David say “blessed are those who scrutinize his testimonies; they seek him out with all their heart,” because nobody is able to seek out God without scrutiny’.” English and Greek from Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile, ed. and trans. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 92–93.

[31] Paul J. Griffiths, “Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?,” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 266–267, my emphasis.

[32] Dei Filius, c. 4, taken from Denzinger, Enchiridion §3020: “Nec umquam ab eo sensu altioris intelligentiae specie et nomine recedendum.”

[32] In a comment on 1 Cor. 3:15 in his Exp. in Ps. cxviii (PL 15: 1580A). Predictably Origen offers a similar comment at Hom. Ier. 22.3 (PG 13: 532A); see also Didymus the Blind, In Ps. 88.8 (PG 39: 1488C-D).

[33] Peter Lombard, Sent. IV, d. 7, n. 2. Cf. Aquinas, ST, Supp., q. 94, a. 1, co.

[34] Balthasar’s own section on “unusable residue” in TD V anticipates bits of the view sketched above.

[35] Though I developed my speculative proposal after consulting only the CCC and a colleague, I’m glad to discover similar interpretations of hell in Pavel Florensky and Sergius Bulgakov. The latter, in fact, chides Catholics for applying 1 Cor. 3:15 “solely to their own notion of purgatory, and not to that to which it refers—i.e., to hell.” Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 489, n. 66. For a literary depiction of sin as the false self and hell as its destruction, see George MacDonald’s The Lost Princess (A Double Story) and Lilith: A Romance. See also Taylor Ross’s “The Severity of Universal Salvation” in the Church Life Journal.

[36] Though the image of eternal conscious torment sketched in Plato’s Phaedo is no less mythic, and that hasn’t prevented Christians from adopting it uncritically.

[37] DV §11: “New proposals advanced for understanding the faith ‘are but an offering made to the whole Church. Many corrections and broadening of perspectives within the context of fraternal dialogue may be needed before the moment comes when the whole Church can accept them’.”

[38] DV §31: “It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him…. For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.”

* * *

Justin Shaun Coyle, PhD, teaches philosophy and theology at Boston College. A catalog of his academic work can be found here. Justin first read That All Shall Be Saved in the very office its author once occupied at Providence College.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart, Eschatology. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to May Catholics Endorse Universalism?

  1. Jedi Scribe says:

    This is probably one of the last (if not the last) step to my consideration of joining the RCC. Thank you so much for clearing this up. I will read it again and again to understand better

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I just read through it for the first time, a lot to think about! My first reaction is that you really thread a narrow line through Catholic teaching, but that doesn’t mean that your interpretation is in anyway incorrect. In the end, I think this is the only way I can view Catholicism as true as a Catholic as I agree with Hart on the topic of universal salvation. I really hope this article gets passed around and argued over to see where it goes. God bless!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jedi Scribe says:

    Reblogged this on Symmetria.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well done and thank you. I’ve been attempting to say this for years now but you’ve done it more clearly and more beautifully. George Macdonald in Phantastes has a pertinent passage regarding the false self: “Shadow of me! Which art not me, but which representest thyself to me as me; here I may find a shadow of light which will devour thee, the shadow of darkness! Here I may find a blessing which will fall on thee as a curse, and damn thee to the blackness whence thou hast emerged unbidden.” (Phantastes, 72)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. earsofc says:

    As a former Catholic, I could not personally swallow this one, and so left the church. The RCC holds that it is incapable of teaching error. If UR is true, or even possibly true, the RCC has taught error for hundreds of years. (An heinous error – the most heinous possible.) I could not in good conscience say I was part of a group who, upon joining, makes you swear to God to accept all their teachings, and to hold them as the unique, visible organ of God’s will in the world, particularly in matters of truth and faith, knowing that I disagreed with their conclusion on the salvation of souls.

    Such was my personal experience.


  6. Grant says:

    I really enjoyed and appreciated this article, and I truly hope it is the mark of the beginning of a larger scale rethinking of and acknowledging of universal salvation as remaining within orthodoxy (who knows, maybe one day acknowledged as Hart for me has decisively demonstrated necessary for the very integrity of the Gospel and to end monstrous distortions being said of God, but that is an impossible situation right now in any Christian confession, it’s rightful admission alongside infernalism and annihilation as a pious position is the best to hope for).

    I find the link with your own sketch and the work of Bulgarkov very interesting, and a place hopefully of fruitful dialogue between both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who either are universalists or at least hopeful or open to it, perhaps finding a fruitful place in some of the Eastern Catholic Churches where these influences are already met . Hopefully suvh dialogue will give clarity to both parties and Bulgarkov might prove a decisive influence for both.

    I am also struck again snd again by how much George MacDonald thought both in his sermons and even more in his stories has such powerful and illuminating effect, one of the greatest snd deepest spiritual thinkers on these matters in the last 200 years at least, and one whose voice in the wilderness is calling Christians out of the easy snd destructive assumptions in this area, he truly is a prophet to Western Christianity specifically and sll Christians generally over the nature of the last judgement. He gives a clarity all need to encounter, meet and struggle with, rather then just sitting in essy assumptions.

    I think you are on the right track, and I hope you continue to develop your thought forward and I pray it moves the discussion forward beyond being told illogically being told you can hope for something that can’t happen. It is a scary step, but as St Maximus we sometimes must risk the charge of heresy for the sake of the Truth, done always with love and respect, but when we believe the Gospel is at stake what other choice do we have (besides these days, accusations of heresy are thrown around cavalierly like confetti sometimes, particularly in social media, truly is a rather spiritually damaging neurosis of our time).

    You are a brave man, you have my prayers and hopes with you for whatever that counts for, God bless and good luck 🙂 .


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Justin, I want to thank you again for writing this thoughtful piece on magisterial authority and the universalist hope. It’s really well-done. I hope it receives the consideration it deserves.

    I have to confess, though, that I am doubtful you will persuade many Catholic theologians and bishops. The poenas aeternas is going to resist your reinterpretation at every turn.
    Fortunately, my opinion is quite irrelevant.

    I am grateful I do not have a dog in this Catholic hunt! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • justinscoyle says:

      Fr Kimel,

      My thanks again for the space to articulate my position, however unlikely it is to persuade my coreligionists. I should repeat, though, that I mean here only to persuade fellow Catholics of universalism’s doctrinal *possibility*, not of the theory’s correctness — and still less of the plausibility of own proposal for holding both together.

      Perhaps you’re right that even this modest hope will prove too sanguine. In which case I can only confess my earnest desire to remain a faithful son of the church whose thinking is shaped by rather than in spite of her doctrine. It’s possible — even likely — that I’m confused. In gratitude I offer her my thoughts (such as they are) anyhow for her to use if helpful and reject or ignore if not.

      Peace & good,

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Steven says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking, honest analysis. I converted to Catholicism several years ago but have since then become more or less convinced of a universalist eschatology….leaving me often with a sense of unsolvable tension. That modern Catholic theologians are willing to explore this question with all seriousness, not leaving this the enviable domain of the Orthodox, leaves me with much hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. seeking99 says:

    I am Catholic but have lately become convinced that universalism is a much more internally sound theology than that of an eternal inescapable hell. I have caught no shortage of flack from fellow Catholics over this, but it amazes me that so much of their criticism amounts to strawmen (“Jesus said hell exists”) and how none of them have actually read the Origenist anathemas, nor the history behind them, nor know how to respond when I point out their hastily-conceived responses contradict even Augustine and Aquinas. I have yet to see an informed Catholic actually respond to universal reconciliation on its own merits. This results in a frustrating amount of tension, but at least it is more bearable than trying to reconcile all the contradictions that an eternal inescapable hell would necessitate belief in.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Ghost says:

    I want to comment on the following sentences, but please take my speculations with a grain of salt:

    – “If evil be the privatio boni, then sin’s existence is exhaustively vampiric. That is, it feasts and depends entirely upon the blood of its host—the good”
    – “we do not know here below precisely which “I” will be saved exactly because we do not yet know who we really are until flame reveals it”
    – “The Catholic should on this view endorse universalism not by hoping nobody in fact ends up in hell (à la Balthasar) but rather by insisting that in some sense everyone must.”

    I recall that Thomas Merton, in his “New Seeds of Contemplation”, made the distinction between the “true self” (corresponding to the Imago Dei) and the “false self” that we build in this life, that clings to perishable things.

    Evil is always a distortion of the good. The “vampiric” language is apt, and to translate it to contemporary language without losing meaning, we may use the language of “infection”, “parasitism”, and “cancer”. Sin, having no life of its own, lives by feeding on our true self (on our vulnerable, wounded our nature, deepening the wound). As it grows and metastasizes, there is more of it and less of us, and in the process furthers our divide from the Life that is God.

    After our deaths, in order to be healed, we all pass through the purifying fire (think of chemotherapy as a metaphor, but it likely involves a re-examination), which is both purgatory for the wounded nature of our true selves, and hell, a burning away for our wounds, our sins, our parasites. The flames are eternal, in the sense that their effect is eternal, the disease never returns. And the more we are attached to our corrupted self, the more painful it is to choose to let go of those parts. The Incarnation was essential in order for our true selves to survive the flames, because it is only by Christ descending into our very beings that we survive the process (“so long as one soul is in Hell, Christ remains there with him”).

    The strong universalist stance is that at eventually, everyone will be healed (1 Corinthians 3:15 – If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.)

    One objection to universalism I’ve heard from Catholics is that if everyone is saved, why should anyone bother to “proclaim the Gospel”? But think about it: if someone has a terrible disease, shouldn’t we want to make it so the healing is as easy for them as possible? The healing is concluded only after we die, but it starts in this life. And the world needs as many shining Icons of Christ as possible, to prepare as many souls as possible. The idea that universalism lessens missionary zeal doesn’t hold water. Quite the opposite.

    What I would find problematic is a universalism with no purgation process. Where both the sadistic rapist and the rape victim are reconciled as if by magic, without any subjective impact on the individual.

    The main obstacle for the Roman Church is to switch from the legalistic language of the courthouse to the language of healing. Anyone wanting to discuss universalism ought to find voices that discussed salvation in terms of healing. I’ve already found an academic work called “Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition”, so that’s a starting point.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. justinscoyle says:

    Some have worried that by ignoring Justinian’s 543 and 553 canons (I did not, see fn. 8), I’ve “stacked the deck” for my own position. The opposite’s the case: I relegated those canons to a footnote exactly because I wanted to present *the strongest* magisterial case against universalism. The fact is that those canons are all too easily dismissed; even conservative Catholic (and Protestant and Orthodox) historians doubt or deny their conciliar status. For this reason universalist critiques of Justinian’s canons always seemed to me to attack a straw man. There are deeper and less dubious challenges (Trent, for instance) which I’d not seen Catholic universalists address.

    But say we include the canons. Even then, they hardly prevent my speculative proposal – indeed, they helped gestate it. Canon 9 (543) condemns whomever holds: “that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings.” That’s meet and right. On my proposal, of course, no demon or impious human being escapes hell’s eternal flames. And that includes the Satan, who must suffer eternal destruction if Lucifer’s to be saved.


Too clever by half, maybe. But again, with Maximus I insist we scrutinize rather accept “the words as they are.” If indeed Justinian’s canons are de fide (which I doubt) or made such by Nicaea II’s reference thereto (which I doubt again), they’re owed the theological interpretation proper to binding doctrine.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Grant says:

    On thinking of the destruction of our shadow selves, it reminds me of reading Ranelli in A Larger Hope? concerning St Origen, that sinners will actually perish forever in the age to come, but will do so as sinners so as to live as saints, once purified from sins, a transformation of sinners into saints which will be the destruction eternal of themselves as sinners. What perishes is the evil itself, which was not created by God.

    Concerning the devil he wrote (her translation I assume):

    Princ 1:6:3; 3:6:5 “This is why it is also written that ‘the last enemy, death, will be destroyed’ [1 Cor 15:26], that there may be nothing painful left, when death will exist no more, nor anything opposed, when there will be no enemy left.” But the last enemy, who is called “death”, i.e. the devil, “will be destroyed, not in such a way as to exist no more, but so that he may no longer be an enemy and death… [W]e must understand the destruction of the last enemy as the destruction, not of the substance that was created by God, but of the inclination and the hostile will that stemmed, not from God, but from the enemy himself. Therefore, he will be destroyed, not in order for him to exist no more, but in such a way as to be no longer ‘enemy’ and ‘death’.”

    So this approach has some fairly venerable perigee (though I don’t know if it will help or hinder coming from St Origen).

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Eric Jobe, Ph.D. says:

    I left this comment as a part of a discussion on another forum, where someone had brought up the idea that the infinite beatitude that even the reprobate will experience after a supposed finite period in hell will swallow up the latter and render it meaningless. It reminded me here of your rather brilliant and creative construal of Aquinas’ notion of the saved gaining pleasure at seeing the punishment of the wicked. I believe what follows may follow along the same lines.

    “Lets think about this in terms of information. If I have a discrete quantity like 5, it carries information, because I can say “5 what?” and answer “5 years” or “5 apples”. If I have infinity, and I try to extract information, I run into a problem. Infinite years, minutes, seconds, etc., are all the same. There is a loss of information (in terms of type). If I then add 5 years to infinite years, there is still infinite years, but there is a loss of information, because that discrete quantity no longer exists. So, in order to keep that information, I have to keep that discrete unit separate in my equation.

    Now, lets say there is a finite punishment in hell and an infinite beatitude that follows. If the type is some temporal quantity, the finite period is swallowed up into the infinite, and there is a loss of information, i.e. the period of punishment is essentially meaningless. But, the same could be said about our earthly life, yet theologically we know that it has information, i.e. meaning, that continues into eternity. What this means is that whatever the finite quantity is, either in earthly years or aeons of hellish torment, when juxtaposed with eternal beatitude, there cannot be a loss of information, so the finite, discrete quantity remains alongside the infinite as meaningful information.

    I think this may be one way to preserve a dogmatic insistence on the eternal nature of hell. Even if it is quantitatively finite, the information it contains, i.e. the process of purgation and repentance, remains alongside the eternal beatitude (and complimentary with it). Hart remarks in his fourth meditation of TASBS that such finite information, e.g. relationships with loved ones, must remain even in eternity, otherwise it would mean the obliteration of our personhood.

    So, the infinite does not swallow up the finite and render it meaningless, because the information in the finite is, as it were, mapped on to the trajectory of the infinite.”

    Liked by 5 people

  14. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Yikes! It appears that at some point in the conversion-editing process the footnotes that I had so conscientiously inserted back into the text got stripped out a second time. Anyway, they are back in. My apologies to Justin and readers.


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