An Apology for Fr James Dominic Rooney

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
~ Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles ~ 

It appears that I owe Fr Rooney an apology.  For months I have understood his writings as asserting a version of the free choice model of damnation. This model is predicated on the inability of the Creator to bring all rational beings into his Kingdom without violating their freedom and autonomy. I have also understood him as rejecting the Augustinian-Thomist notion of efficacious, or irresistible, grace. But it appears I was wrong on both counts. Yesterday on Facebook Rooney denied this was his view and brought to my attention the following paragraph in his article “Hard Universalism, Grace, and Creaturely Freedom“:

Further, on traditional theories of grace such as that of Thomas Aquinas, God could have predestined everyone to glory without “violating” their freedom. God predestined the Blessed Virgin or Christ Jesus from before their birth to be perfectly sinless, without thereby eliminating their freedom to do otherwise. More generally, the ability to sin is no part of freedom; one can still do otherwise, without sin, if all your options are good ones. (Otherwise, God and the saints would not be free!)

I remember reading these sentences when the article first appeared, but at the time I did not draw the conclusion that Rooney was claiming them as his own view. Should I have? I don’t know. But I wish I had, as I would have immediately asked him if he agreed with the claim that “God could have predestined everyone to glory without ‘violating’ their freedom” and asked for elaboration. His answer would have been clarifying.

What I do know is that some of Rooney’s social media statements sure sound like they are grounded in a free will theodicy, and that is how many of us have taken them. Consider, for example, this Twitter thread:

I do not know how to reconcile his above comments with his belief that God could have ensured the salvation of all by the exercise of his predestinating will. I’m sure that a thorough search of Fr Rooney’s tweets would reveal other comments that are equally vulnerable to misunderstanding. Yesterday I searched through his comments here on Eclectic Orthodoxy. I did find some that appear to dissociate him from the positions that I have attributed to him. Unfortunately, I did not read them when he first posted them. That’s not unusual. As a general rule I do not follow combox conversations, unless a question has been directly posed to me.

In any case, none of this matters. I have misunderstood Fr Rooney’s views and have attributed to him opinions that are not his own. Sir, I apologize. I thank you for your correction, and I trust that other universalists will take note of this clarification of your beliefs.

But I must point out, Fr Rooney, that your agreement with St Thomas on predestination opens you to the serious charge that God is evil or at least beyond good and evil. If God could have saved all but chose not to (for very, very, very good reasons, of course), then it’s difficult to see how he can be rightly confessed as perfect and absolute Love. But this question has already been discussed thoroughly on Eclectic Orthodoxy, and I will not belabor the point.

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12 Responses to An Apology for Fr James Dominic Rooney

  1. Iainlovejoy says:

    This is consistent with an unfortunate lack of consistency in Fr Rooney’s arguments here: he does tend to repeatedly contradict himself, often in the course of the same comment, or even on occasion sentence. While he is always clear that universalism is wrong, is has been very difficult to get a clear and consistent statement as to why, or what he actually does believe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Exactly – and the chief reason not to take him as a serious interlocutor. He doesn’t even understand DBH’s argument.


  2. Counter-Rebel says:

    The non-universalist Catholic could say that creaturely free will, even for the Virgin Mary, requires the metaphysical possibility of irrevocably rejecting God’s grace. This is compatible with its being the case, in the composite sense, that she was unable to sin (due to a special grace). In the divided sense, she could have fell.
    But once you remove the live option aspect of the ability to reject God irrevocably (the composite sense), why not also remove the metaphysical possibility aspect? It seems the non-universalist wants to cherry-pick from our intuitions about freedom. That in mind, the hard universalist could say that free will requires the metaphysical possibility to reject God and/or God’s grace, but not forever. Eventually the sinner hits “the extreme limit of evil” and “by necessity turns its movement towards the good” (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Human Image of God, XXI). In past exchanges with Fr. Rooney I’ve quoted from W. Matthews Grant to show that a broad account of libertarian freedom can accommodate determined choices so long as the determinans (factor that makes a choice determined) was acquired from a previous undetermined choice. The hard universalist could say that memory of past misfortune would make the sinner more prudent.


  3. Tom says:

    I’ve assumed the same, Fr Al. But I don’t know that my interactions with him have focused much on that particular point. But thanks for sharing this.

    It’s clear (as has come up in my conversations with him here) that he believes God has some good end (which Rooney will not attempt to imagine or describe, it’s enough to note that it’s logically possible that it be the case) for giving spiritual creatures the agency to determine themselves finally with respect to heaven/hell. And this unnamed good is (I take it, for Rooney) ‘as good as’ that good end achieved by God were God to simply determine all to final, universal salvation.

    If Fr Rooney believes God capable of determining all to final salvation without any violation to creaturely agency or loss of ‘final good’ but choosing rather an end inclusive of eternal suffering, then God on his view is (in my view) more deplorably evil than I thought.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, I have to admit that with Fr Rooney’s now clear assertion that God could have predestined all to eternal salvation I am now utterly confused about Fr Rooney’s arguments advanced in his three articles published in the Church Life Journal. I suppose that I need to go back and reread them in light of his above assertion. It also clarifies what he means by the phrase “contingent universalism,” which I apparently also misunderstood. In the philosophical literature, “contingent universalism” has a different meaning than what he apparently intends by the phrase. As Jonathan Kvanvig puts it:

      According to contingent universalism, the possibility exists that some people end up in hell, but as a matter of contingent fact, no one will. In the end, God’s saving grace and power win out over the forces of evil, and the entire created order is redeemed.

      I suppose I was so focused on his problematic argument that strong universalists assert the salvation of all as a necessary truth, which he judges heretical, that I mistakenly put him into the free-choice model of hell. In my defense, his Twitter tweets were often confusing and conflicting (more than a few of which he deleted shortly after publishing them). I don’t know if I should feel stupid or misled by poorly written articles. The Church Life Journal editorial staff should have been more vigilant before publishing them. I suspect many readers on both sides of the infernalist–universalist question have not understood properly his arguments.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. John H says:

    You have nothing to apologize for, Father Al. Rooney follows the logic of hell and eternal damnation that you so precisely defined in one of your articles. The premise that he accepts without question is that hell exists and some may end up there perpetually. He cannot compromise on that point because he believes that the Catholic Church teaches the infernalist position as part of the deposit of faith.

    And so he makes use of whatever argument happens to suit his needs at the moment. In one exchange that may be a libertarian defense of hell, while at another time he may call upon the double predestinarian schemes of Augustine, Aquinas or Garrigou-Lagrange. It does not matter in the least the those two positions contradict each other. The important and paramount concern is to support the purportedly infallible teaching on hell.


    • Robert F says:

      If all that matters is supporting the teaching on hell, then theological sophistry would be considered a virtue by its proponents.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I would not describe Fr Rooney as guilty of sophistry. I think him sincere in his belief that universalism is a dangerous heresy. I do believe that he should have thought through the presentation of his objections more carefully before writing his CLJ articles. As already mentioned, his agreement with Aquinas that God could have effectively predestined all to eternal salvation should have been stated upfront in his first article. That move would have precluded unnecessary misunderstanding and confusion and reshaped the debate. It would also have forced him, e.g., to carefully distinguish his own predestinarian views from DBH’s transcendental determinism.


      • Robert F says:

        But if one is committed to the idea that belief in damnation to hell is justified on the basis of revelation, and that revelation reveals religious truth in a way that logic may not always support (the text in the New Testament wherein Jesus says “I am the truth…” has been used more than a little in the history of Christianity to buttress precisely that belief), then one might well feel justified in playing fast and loose with contradictory philosophical arguments, which one views as not absolute truth, in support of what one believes to be an absolute, and urgently vital, revealed truth.


      • John H says:

        Agreed, Father. He is not guilty of sophistry because he does not actually intend to deceive others by presenting arguments that are contradictory. I believe that it is more of a subconscious scenario where he selects the arguments without fully appreciating the full meaning implied when compared with earlier assertions in other contexts.

        Having said that, I do believe that his position has unfortunate and deleterious effects on people from a pastoral perspective. Let me elaborate on what I mean. Usually I refrain from getting personal in these blog posts because I am not really good at talking about myself and it brings back difficult memories. I was raised a traditional Roman Catholic and grew up with Vatican II in the background. Eventually I rejected many Catholic doctrines, including the teachings on mortal sin and the possibility of eternal perdition. On the other hand, my mother remained a traditional Catholic for the rest of her life, attending Mass every Sunday and making regular confessions. But her final days on this earth were not pleasant either physically or spiritually. She was afraid that she was going to hell in spite of the fact that she had lived a good life. Indeed, she experienced hallucinations where she was convinced that she saw demons around her ready to drag her down to hell. I attempted to comfort her and ease her fears as much as possible as did our parish priest, but she remained obsessed with the thought of hell to the end.

        I certainly do not intend to imply that Father Rooney and other infernalist preachers intend to inflict such psychological harm upon their parishioners. But it certainly is true that many people are severely damaged by such ideas. This is an unfortunate example of bad ideas causing grave harm to many. As a result, I have very little patience for Father Rooney or other believers in eternal conscious torment. So, I reiterate that you certainly do not owe him an apology.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. davidartman1 says:

    In his interview with Suan Sonna, Rooney insists that God has not set up some people to be damned. My verbatim of his remarks were, “God made us free. It’s dogmatic in Catholicism that God denies nobody what they need to be saved. The resistance to grace is our fault.”
    Father Rooney quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying God shines the sun on everybody and the only reason they are damned is because they shut their eyes to it. God doesn’t set us up to fail. He allows it to happen. He allowed the Fall to happen so we do not come into existence in a state of grace. That’s the world he decided to create. We just have to trust that God is good even when the evidence may seem violate our moral intuition. It can be spiritually dangerous to try and find out God’s reasons for the allowance of evil.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is not spiritually dangerous to ask questions out of a genuine concern for the truth. Quite to the contrary, it is spiritually dangerous to suppress the natural desire for the true and the good.

      It’s one thing for a priest or another person in spiritual authority to discern that the source of a question comes from pride or selfishness or a combative spirit, and advise one to lay the matter aside.

      But anyone who suggests that we ought ask questions out of a genuine motivation to know the truth likely should be viewed with extreme caution.


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