[written on 11 Nov 2015 to answer the question of one of my Protestant friends: ”Could you explain the catholic position on predestination/free will?” ]
Predestination isn’t a word Catholics use frequently. In fact, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we find it only once:
CCC 600 To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: “In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28; cf. Ps 2:1-2) For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness. (Cf. Mt 26:54; Jn 18:36; 19:11; Acts 3:17-18.)
So, it is God’s eternal plan that factors our responses in and brings about His plan of salvation. That is a different notion than the one asking who will be saved and who will not be saved, as some Protestants have it. We Catholics will not ask just a question because our Lord Jesus Christ came to save all mankind. Every single one. Does this mean that everyone will be saved? St. Augustine says: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” Our salvation depends on Him, but it also depends on our response.
The second mentioning of predestination is here:
CCC 1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.
Catholics are aware that our life of grace, our supernatural life, is a battlefield, much like our natural life: we strive, and fail. We return and try again. We return to Our Lord, ask for His mercy, and restart. And sometimes we succeed. Not too often. But we try, with God’s grace, to win as many battles as possible. We know, the only important thing in battle is to win the last battle – but we do not know when the last battle is, when our final day here on earth arrives. So, better be prepared, and pray for this “final perseverance” as it is called in Liturgy. And pray for others. On the other side, since God wants us to be victorious, our life will always be full of faith, hope and gratitude. – But not one of certitude regarding our own salvation: “Once saved always saved” is a rather recent invention (less than 500 years), and said no Church Father ever.
God takes us seriously
God has created us as persons with free will. This is quite a risk from God’s side (if you will), since we can oppose ourselves to Him and to His Love. On the other hand, we are the only ones that can love God above all because we want to and praise and thank him because we want to. God takes us humans seriously, we are not just nice dolls in the theater of history unfolding itself without us. We find many examples in the Gospel: Mary’s “let it be done unto me according to your word” is THE most important “yes” in the whole of history; as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (long before he became Pope Benedict XVI) said: “Mary’s yes is the contribution of mankind to the Incarnation”. And Jesus would not have done his first sign, if the servants at the wedding in Cana would not have filled the jars with water, he would not have multiplied the bread and the fishes without the small, but free contribution of a small amount, He counted on the professional work of the fisher-apostles together with their obedience to His word in the miraculous catch of fish…And if the Apostles would not have acted on the words of Jesus Christ: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”(Mt 28,19), we would not be Christians.
How can God know everything, even my future choices? If He knows them, I am not free. And if He does not know them, He is not omniscient. – The contradiction is not necessarily a real one, it is only one for us and our perceptions. And since the focus on human freedom is so important to Catholics, we need to look into this.
We need to keep in mind that God is outside of time: past, present and future are equally present to Him. And there is one metaphor – that has limitations as all metaphors do – that helps my poor mind. It comes or is inspired by Boethius, a Roman philosopher from the 5th century. Imagine you have someone on a high mountain who can see the valley below. There is a path that divides into two. And a horseman is coming along and will come to the crossing soon. You look further and see on the right path some robbers just waiting for someone to pass. What can you do, if you have a lot of power? You could call him and give him a warning. You could mandate a big rock to fall down and just block the right path. You could distract the robbers by sending them a messenger calling them to another place. His horse could stumble and get wounded. Let’s take the last. Our traveler will get angry about his bad luck, and consider his options: shall he return to find a veterinarian? Shall he take care of the wound himself and then choose the left path that takes longer, but is not so steep and dangerous for the horse, or shall he press on with his original plan? Whatever he decides, his decision is free. But you, you will see what he decides and still have time to send the robbers away if he decides to follow the original plan. You will see it after his decision, ok, but God sees everything “simultaneously” – to express somehow that God is outside of time.
One may well say: But was the horseman really free to choose? After all, his horse was wounded, so his possibilities were limited. Yes, they were limited, but he still was free to choose this or that, the better or the worse, and to reflect on the best course of action. Therefore just a word of caution: our responses, choices have always boundaries, interior ones like education, experience, character, moods, previous choices or exterior ones like relationships, physical needs, historical, cultural and environmental circumstances, but our choices and responses are free, they frame who we are and become, and also partly how our life develops. Freedom is not Independence.
For Catholics, predestination is “out”, but divine providence is “in”.
Creation participates in God’s Truth, Goodness and Beauty; it is participation, a journey towards its ultimate perfection. Also we humans are pilgrims on our way to our final destination, to Heaven, and we should trust His guidance, even if we do not understand it sometimes or even often, since it is said: “All things work together for the good of those who love God.” (Rom 8:28) We can find God’s call asking for our response in all events. This is why Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: “Let God use you. Give permission”. Give God permission to use us or accept adversities are often our most difficult tasks.
One of the burning questions: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why does he not prevent evil? “God allows evil only so as to make something better result from it” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
YOUCAT 51: “Evil in the world is an obscure and painful mystery. Even the Crucified asked his Father, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Much about it is incomprehensible. One thing, though, we know for sure: God is 100 percent good. He can never be the originator of something evil. God created the world to be good, but it is not yet complete. In violent upheavals and painful processes it is being shaped and moved toward its final perfection. That may be a better way to classify what the Church calls physical evil, for example, a birth defect, or a natural catastrophe. Moral evils, in contrast, come about through the misuse of freedom in the world. “Hell on earth”—child soldiers, suicide bombings, concentration camps—is usually man-made. The decisive question is therefore not, “How can anyone believe in a good God when there is so much evil?” but rather, “How could a person with a heart and understanding endure life in this world if God did not exist?” Christ’s death and Resurrection show us that evil did not have the first word, nor does it have the last. God made absolute good result from the worst evil. We believe that in the Last Judgment God will put an end to all injustice. In the life of the world to come, evil no longer has any place and suffering ends.” (YOUCAT Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2010)
Please take note of the distinction between physical and moral evils which may sound unfamiliar for Non-Catholics – once again: humans can freely choose evil (it makes them slaves of sin, but they can still choose to do, speak or think in evil ways.)
And last but not least:
CCC 314 We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12), will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest (Cf. Gen 2:2) for which he created heaven and earth.