Wednesday, March 14, 2018

After the Reformation VIII: Molinism

Old Errors Return? Some Never Left

Some of us who took the time to read, or at least glance over, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's latest pamphlet, Placuit Deo, were bemused to learn that Pelagianism and Gnosticism had infiltrated on little cat feet the City of God while we weren't looking. After all, as actual doctrinal movements in the Church's past, they have both long since been condemned and abandoned.

Pelagius argued that the first movement of grace depended entirely on the will of the recipient, but then more or less held for the operation of supernatural grace, its essential nature, and the rest, along orthodox lines. The Gnostics did not so much deny the dogmas of the Creed as make all sorts of ridiculous additions, perhaps male sonans but more likely proximum haeresi. In any event, St. Irenaeus and others thoroughly lambasted and condemned the Gnostics' pathetic attempts to bend Christianity to the Neo-Platonist ideas then in vogue, while the great St. Augustine, the Council of Orange, and others again condemned the errors of Pelagius and his followers (who at least seemed to be motivated by a desire to discourage a kind of Quietism among some of the faithful).

Bemusement resulted from the CDF monitum, it seems fair to say, because the errors that surround us on almost every side nowadays are nowhere near so pious or tentative as the Pelagians' and Gnostics' of old. We have instead the outright denial not just of grace but of the supernatural itself! There is ultimately no distinction between the uncreated God and the created world in Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Loisy, Teilhard, Rahner, et al. ad nauseam. If there is any substance to the broad category of Modernism, it is this particularly disastrous notion of Idealism. Once it's adopted, as has been rehearsed many times by Catholic theologians (worthy of the name), that's the end of the dogmas of creation, the fall, Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the Church, and the Resurrection of the Dead.

Even though the recent adherents and exponents of Idealism-Modernism (say, everyone post-Teilhard) have rarely if ever been condemned--some have received the red hat, for crying out loud--their sad little ideas have been, and not just in Pascendi and Lamentabili. Consequently, these contemporary adherents are simply uncondemned heretics, like the Arian bishops of the fourth century. In fact, some of them are bishops (and Arians, for that matter).

There is, however, an old error that has gone uncondemned--indeed, it received official shelter--throughout the long, violent centuries of the Modern Era. If we trace its muddy footprints through the household of the Faith, we just might find that it lent a hearty helping hand in bringing about the current crisis.

Meet Fr. Luis de Molina, S.J.

Fr. Molina, SJ: about as much fun as he looks
When the great St. Ignatius of Loyola committed the Spiritual Exercises to posterity, he added a few notes as an appendix, including the "Rules for Thinking with the Church." Among them, we find this wise admonition (no. XV):
We should not make it a habit of speaking much of predestination. If somehow at times it comes to be spoken of, it must be done in such a way that the people are not led into any error. They are at times misled, so that they say: "Whether I shall be saved or lost, has already been determined, and this cannot be changed whether my actions are good or bad." So they become indolent and neglect the works that are conducive to the salvation and spiritual progress of their souls.
 Boldly stepping into the minefield so clearly posted with warning signs by the Saint comes the Reverend Luis de Molina. Not only did he not avoid "speaking much of predestination," he wouldn't shut up about it. However, it must be said that he did heed the second part of St. Ignatius' warning--there was no Calvinistic predeterminism in his ideas. Far from it. In fact, he exemplifies the old Latin adage:
Incidit in Scyllam dum vult vitare Charybdim ["He fell to Scylla while trying to avoid Charybdis"]
 Molina, you see, decided that the best answer to Calvin and his ilk regarding Predestination was to deny that God predestined souls without at least some glance into their future as it might play out in various circumstances. (Believe me, I am going to boil down and condense as much of this extremely prolix and protracted dispute as I can for the purposes of a blog post. For an atypical and amusing overview of Molina's life and works, you might consult the article in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, written by Fr. Pohle of the Society of Jesus, although the all-clarifying "SJ" is slyly omitted in the citation.)

Molina eventually called this "glance into the future" the scientia media, the "middle knowledge" of God: not God's knowledge in Himself, nor His knowledge of beings in existence or willed to come into existence, but a kind of what-if knowledge before the divine will decrees their existence. This way, don't you know, God can choose which "scenario" to decree so that a) the individual will actually cooperate with grace and be saved, or b) will do the least amount of bad so as not to merit too terrible a punishment.

How Was This Not Condemned as Heresy? Patronage, That's How

So, what's so wrong with this theory, one might ask. There is, in the first (and last) place, a dependence in God: He becomes dependent on something that is not, ultimately, God: the scientia media. If He needs to consult, as it were, the "middle knowledge" to will if or how an individual human being will come into existence, how is this not a dependence? Obviously, it is just that. Immediately emanating from this initial error, like gangrene from a wound, comes a denial of all the divine attributes: God would not be the Prime Mover, would not be infinite, would not be the sole Creator, etc., etc. Molina and his fellow Jesuits denied such conclusions, of course, but more on the strength of their say-so than anything else, since explanations regarding the scientia media generated a flood of words, but not much clarity.
Fr. Bañez: the hero of this story

Thankfully for Catholic theology, the great Domingo Bañez, of the Order of Preachers, rescued Catholic theology, and in particular the thought of St. Thomas, from the tortured rationalizations of Molina. Like a good Catholic, Bañez formulated a concrete, explicit phrase to express God's absolute sovereignty (including predestination) and the creature's utter dependence on Him: physical premotion of the will. God moves the will physically (that is, directly by His own power) before the creature can do anything. Deny this, and you deny the nature of God. The Molinists realized this and spent the majority of their time attacking Bañez and his fellow Dominicans as "Determinists," as though they denied free-will.

Eventually, the Holy Father got wind of all the controversy in Spain stirred up by the devil, or rather Molina and his co-religionists, and had the entire matter transferred to Rome. According to another great Thomist, René Billuart (in his commentary on the Summa), the Pope, Clement VIII, was at length determined to condemn Molina's ideas, once he'd had time to consider the Dominicans' objections. In a conversation with St. Robert Bellarmine (SJ, don't forget), Pope Clement stated that Molinism was simply Pelagius in a new form. St. Robert countered that Pelagius had his good points. The Pope flew into a rage and shouted at Bellarmine: "Now you would defend even Pelagius!" Shaken, St. Robert withdrew and feared the worst, and rightly so: the Holy Father had the condemnation drawn up, ready for his signature, but--alas!--he died before he could put his name to the document.
Paul V of the Borghese: the Spoiler
Subsequently, Pope Paul V--better remembered for his friendship-turned-persecution of Galileo--took an evasive way out of the controversy (not wishing to alienate the Jesuits): both "positions" could be held by Catholics and disputed by theologians, but neither camp could call the other heretics (although--he added--the Dominican position was thoroughly orthodox and more in line with Catholic tradition). In the end, the Molinist error was never condemned, and it continued to be disputed down to World War II and beyond. (In the 1990's, one of my professors, a fine, old-school Dominican, addressed it briefly one day, listing all Molina's errors and why they were pernicious.)


It's amusing, in a sad way, to think that if Pelagianism and the fog of Gnosticism have returned, they did so by way of the Jesuit influence on Catholic thought, through the medium of the scientia media. In the end, however, although scholars like to complicate the matter with talk of "schools of thought" and "intellectual influences" and the like, it really comes down to a fundamental error about man as creature and God as Creator: some refuse, however subtly or partially, to admit that creation is wholly dependent on the Trinity in every way. They would like to reserve some aspect--our choices, our "conscience"--to ourselves alone, apart from the divine will. And so, perhaps, just as Molina could argue that, after all is said and done, we have a part to play in determining the divine will, so his intellectual heirs can argue that conscience, so called, has an independent role in determining the extent and the power of Christ's law, e.g. in the reception of Holy Communion (to choose a random example).

Of course, one day all this confusion about the divine sovereignty will be cleared up in a manner quite unmistakable to each one of us, just as it already has been for Molina and Paul V. May that day not find us unprepared. The old Latin poem, after all, warns us all: Media vita, in morte sumus: quem quaerimus Adjutorem nisi te, Domine? ["In the midst of life, we are in death: who besides Thee, O Lord, shall we seek for our helper?]


  1. The problem is that Banez was unable to explain how man was not responsible for his own sin. That being said other Thomist were able to. I suggest reading Marin Sola on the issue. Some of his articles are translated into English and are free on google books.

    1. Dumb Ox,
      Thank you for reading! I don't think I would go so far as to say that Banez was unable to explain personal responsibility: the will is free, after all, except in relation to the infinite good. That much was always understood by Thomists. But it's true that later Thomists (John of St. Thomas, for instance) articulated the sequence of knowledge and consent in greater detail. Garrigou-Lagrange sums it up all very well in his commentary on the IIa Pars of the Summa. (And thanks for the tip on Marin Sola. I hope to look that up soon.)

  2. Wonderful post, Father!

    There must be something in the account of the physical premotion of the will that left questions about free will unanswered.

    I think that theologians have never adequately squared the phenomenon of free will and God's complete Dominion over All.

    1. Mirai,
      Thank you; kind as always!
      No one will ever be able, in this life, to explain adequately the relation of our free-will to God's predestination because "half" of that difficulty lies in the infinite being of God, which of course we cannot know in itself (in this life, at least). I've always liked Garrigou-Lagrange's description of this problem as a kind of chiaro-scuro: half perceived, half hidden. He insisted that we hold fast to what we can perceive: the unshakeable principles of human free-will and of course the supreme causality of God.

  3. If God grants grace if he sees that we would cooperate with it, how can that be called predestination at all? And how can we cooperate with grace without grace itself when we can't do anything without God? Molinism can only be called postdestination if anything, but yeah, it's basically pelagianism since it is obvious that in that system, man's cooperation with grace is within grasp of man's natural power.

    Although i'm personally with st. Augustine and his praemotio moralis, of course, i'm vastly more fond of st. Thomas and p. Banez than Molina.

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  5. Great article!

    Believe it or not, I converted to Traditional Catholicism from High-Church Anglicanism last week, and the Banezian theory of Grace/Predestination played a large part in my conversion.

    I was a very Catholic Anglican, but I avoided Catholicism for the longest time because I thought the Church taught works-righteousness. Many Catholics and Catholic apologists make it seem that way. As a staunch Augustinian theologically, I wanted nothing to do with the Catholic Church because I thought it was Pelagian. Then, a Traditional Catholic friend recommended Garrigou’s work on Predestination to me. I also read St. Thomas’ commentary on Romans. Suddenly, I realized that I had no disagreements with Traditional (Augustinian/Thomist) Catholic theology. As I’ve said, I was a very Catholic Anglican.(in fact, many of my Trad Catholic friends would tell me I was more Catholic than most Catholics) The question of grace/predestination was what held me back initially. With this resolved, I decided to enter the Church last week. Most Catholics I speak to are shocked when I show them what St. Augustine and St. Thomas taught on grace/Predestination (they say it’s “unfair”) It’s hard for me to blame Protestants when they call the Catholic Church Pelagian (most probably are)

    This is (in my view) an essential point of doctrine. If the Church were ever to dogmatize the Augustinian/Thomist view on grace/Predestination, I am confident that many, many Protestants would convert to the Faith. Garrigou-Lagrange is the best on this subject.

    Please keep me in your prayers


  6. Dr. K.,
    Congratulations to you, sir! I will certainly remember you at Mass today (the feast of St. Benedict). Personally, I know why you say that most Catholics are to all intents and purposes Pelagians: in my instruction classes, I usually ask the candidates if Catholics believe in predestination. They almost always answer "no." I then remind them of St. Paul's words: "those whom He foreknew, He likewise predestined," etc. And then follows a simplified (very simplified) version of the explanation Garrigou-Lagrange synthesizes from the great Thomists.

    Again, all the best to you from all of us here at "The Rad Trad" on your conversion!

  7. Especially Rahner caused great confusion with his "Self-Transcendentalism". Man essentially becomes a God-like creature, he establishes Deism, and God can only act through humans who do His will. All in all, he is one of the Pelagians.