|Allegory of the Theological Virtues: Faith, Love, and Hope|
Hope vs. Presumption
If we are saved through hope, and hope is certain; why is it that the Catholic Church teaches that it is a heresy to say that I am certain of my own salvation? How is it that theological hope can be certain without being presumptuous?
The theological virtue of hope must needs be distinguished first from natural and worldly volition – “I hope it doesn’t rain today!” – and then from the vices of despair (which is a lack of hope) and presumption (a quasi-excess of hope).
[this article was previously published at VirtuousPla.net, but was lost when the site moved to IgnitumToday – check out all the good work that blog continues to do (here)]
Hope Against Hope
What makes theological hope different from natural and worldly hope is, first and foremost, the object to which the will is inclined. Natural hope directs us to desire certain natural things – for example, good weather or financial security – and it can even direct us toward God according to our human powers (we can be moved to hope in God as our Creator, as the first Cause, and prime-Mover). However, natural hope cannot move us to desire that which is above and beyond our nature – natural hope will never move us to even desire (much less effectively tend toward) heaven.
The theological virtue of hope makes us to desire heaven as something which can really be attained through God’s grace and our effort – this is what merit is, our rational cooperation with God’s grace. Now, the virtue of hope has two opposing vices (they are mutually opposed one to the other, and both are opposed to hope): The deficiency of hope is called despair, the excess of hope is called presumption [though, it is true, in one respect there is no “excess” properly so-called, since the Divine Mercy is per se infinite, and cannot be hoped in too much].
It is probably easier for us to recognize what despair is and how it differs from hope. Despair can either be of God or of ourselves – either, we do not believe that God is strong or loving enough to save us, or we do not believe that we can be converted. Despair is to abandon heaven, as something which is unattainable. Like hope, despair is not an emotion or a feeling – despair (together with hope and presumption) is the result of a choice which a man makes. Depression or hard times do not lead to despair – the only thing which leads to despair is the choice to abandon hope. This is surely a terrible sin.
And then there is the vice of presumption. It is probably more difficult for us to recognize what exactly constitutes presumption. On the one hand, we know that hope is supposed to be certain and sure – how, then, can we have an “excess” of hope? If hope is already 100% certain, how can presumption go beyond the proper boundaries and make us too hopeful?
The truth is that the sin of presumption (like that of despair) can be twofold: We presume either on God or on ourselves. To presume upon ourselves is to believe that we can attain to heaven by our own powers – it is to put our hope in “horse and chariot” (i.e. in our own abilities) rather than in the Name of the Lord (cf. Psalm 19:8, Vulgate). This sort of presumption will usually lead to despair, since it will eventually become clear that our own powers will not save us.
The second form of presumption is the worse. It is to presume upon God’s mercy as being opposed to the divine justice. This is the sin of presumption whereby a man admits that he is a sinner and does not have any right to heaven (nor any means of getting to heaven, by his own powers), but then simply considers the divine mercy and ignores the demands of justice. This is a very prevalent sin in our day. A man who sins by presuming upon God will say something like this: “Sure, I know that I am a sinner, but I am certain that God will save me anyways.”
To think that God will save us and forgive us even if we do not convert, is to commit the sin of presumption. There are some things God cannot do: He cannot make a rock so big he can’t lift it, he cannot forgive an unrepentant sinner, and he cannot make someone who dies in mortal sin to go to heaven.
Hope, on the other hand, takes the mean between despair and presumption. Theological hope admits that God’s mercy is omnipotent and that the Good Lord desires our salvation (in fact, he desires it even more than we do), but hope then also admits that God’s mercy works in us to bring about not only our salvation but also our conversion – such that, without conversion, there can be no salvation. Hope admits that we are sinners, but also admits that God’s grace is sufficient to bring about true contrition and conversion in our souls.
The Certitude of Hope
But isn’t hope certain? How can hope be certain, if we know that the Protestants are wrong to say, “Once saved, always saved”? Here we see another important aspect in which Christian hope differs from Protestant presumption: Theological hope does not so much make us certain that we are to be saved (contrary to the Protestant errors), but rather makes us to be certain that we are on the path of salvation. Christian hope tells us that, if only we continue in the life of virtue (especially in the life of charity), we will most certainly be saved. Hope tells us that we are not yet saved, but that we will most certainly be saved if only we do not abandon the grace which God continues to give us. Hope assures us that the grace of Christ will be with us to the end, if only we continue to cooperate with that grace.
“In other words, by certain hope we have not as yet the certitude of our future salvation, which is not revealed to us (for that we would need a special revelation), but we tend certainly toward salvation, under the infallible direction of faith and according to the promises of God […] The certitude of Christian hope is not, therefore, as yet the certitude of salvation, but it is the firmest kind of certitude that we are tending toward salvation.
“From this admirable doctrine it follows that Christian hope should have two qualities or properties: it should be laborious to avoid the presumption which expects the divine reward without working for it; and it should be firm, invincible, to avoid discouragement.”
(from The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the greatest theologian of our age)