Today I can relate an example of attempt to argue for a position from “words of a pope”. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II muses about the possibility whether “all may be saved”. As a matter of fact, his musing is more careful than many make it out to be. He also speaks of the “terrifying character” of the “two groups” in Mt 25, the sheep and the goats. Thus, it is not as though he simply and explicitly embraces the hope unequivocally. However, on the other hand, he does muse about the possibility that all men may be saved, and he wonders about our having a hope for this.
The theologian chiefly behind the idea of such a hope is Hans Urs von Balthasar. I have written a piece challenging each of his arguments for this hope, especially his soteriology. You can find my piece “Balthasar’s Delirious Hope” here. The soteriological mechanics Balthasar draws on are erroneous: e.g., the idea that someone already damned can finally “break” or “repent”; or, the idea that “sin is a reality” (an existing reality, as opposed to a privation of due good in human action); or, the idea that Jesus “removes” this “reality sin” from you so that unless you identify yourself with sin you will be saved; or, the idea that there are no predictive lists of damned in Jesus’ statements but only “warnings about possibilities”; etc.
A pastor should also size up the pastoral side-effects of a theory. Balthasar and others (rightly) caution about painting too bleak a picture because it can lead people to despair. This is a good warning; we must not arouse despair. We must arouse for each living pilgrim a deep hope in Divine Mercy. Amen to that. However, we must also caution about arousing false optimism. A cavalier attitude. Yet, this attitude is exactly what the present world is swimming in. People in the western countries think that “all shall be well” when they die. Thus, they euthanize themselves; they do not heed the law of God; they think that things will “finally get better”. Maybe they won’t! Purgatory’s heating system is just about the same as hell’s. And from hell no one escapes, contra false hopes.
Back to the opening topic. Come who call on John Paul II as an authority in this matter of “hope for all” do so with a blurred distinction between “words of a pope” and “papal words”. But we must be clear: Crossing the Threshold is not an authoritative text. Therefore, one cannot make an argument from Magisterial authority by this text.
But someone might say, “OK. So it is not authoritative; still, these are words of a saint.” True enough. But that is just one saint. There are hundreds of saints who are very clear not only that “some” are damned but that many are damned. In fact, if we weigh the evidence, this is what we get. A handful of saints propose universal salvation; and the rest propose the opposite. Now, let’s look at those who propose universal salvation. Gregory of Nyssa was one. His theory was in fact adamant “apokatastasis,” everyone including the devil will be saved. Well, that theory is a heresy. So much so that embarrassed fans of Gregory “altered” some of his texts to reflect a different view. But we must admit that Gregory made a mistake on this issue. Then we have a few saints whose writings are ambiguous. Then we have Saint John Paul II. But I would cite against him a saint of mercy whom he canonized, St. Faustina. She states:
“These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners” (Diary of St. Faustina, 741)?
I would suggest that John Paul II’s musing in his non-authoritative Crossing the Threshold was a terrible mistake. I consider this musing as little to be emulated as is his drinking from a pagan chalice at Assisi. That was a scandalous act. Saints make mistakes.
At the end of the day, in my opinion, the idea that we might hope that “all men” may be saved is really an insane delusion captivating contemporary Catholics. It is thinking very abstractly, not concretely. For I can humanly relate to you and to my relatives, my family, my friends, my known enemies, to each person I encounter, and then vaguely to “other people”. If X is a living person of whom I know, I can have humanly a divine hope for his salvation. If X is a dead person of whom I know, I can have humanly a divine hope that he died well and is being purified in purgatory. But to lump the “all” together is so abstract, so contrary to Scripture, so contrary to the constant mind of the Church as evidenced in her documents, that it seems to me an insanity to be up at night wondering whether “all” are actually saved. Rather, better to worry about the day and the day’s evil, to offer up one’s little crosses, to plead for mercy of conversion for the living.
Moreover, except for the few people out there who are so unbelievably noble that they entertain a “real fear” for their own damnation while entertaining “good hope” that every human person shall be saved – and there are those who claim to fit this category, with all humility – except for these rare birds, I think that most people who hear about this “possibility” strike up a smile and go on with their lives, saying, “Of course! God would not damn anyone. He is love. That’s silly to think we could go to hell.” And they go on, indulging in porn, or a carefree life, paying mild attention to God Almighty in their lives. In short, they live idolatrous lives and “justify” themselves because of an insane hope.