Matt C. Abbott
October 22, 2017
Few will be saved?
By Matt C. Abbott

Below is a lengthy excerpt from Holy Confidence: The Forgotten Path for Growing Closer to God, by Father Benedict Rogacci (1646-1719). Thanks to Sophia Institute Press for permitting me to publish this excerpt in my column. Click here to order a copy of Holy Confidence in paperback or e-book.



Chapter 25

Whether Few Will Be Saved

Having now put an end to the doubts and anxieties of some timid people about their present state or their future in this life, it remains for me only to dispel the fears that arise about their eternal future: (1) because few are saved, (2) the difficulties of the road thither, (3) the unknown judgments of God, and (4) the impenetrable mystery of eternal predestination. It seems to me that I have already done it, for as we need nothing but sanctifying grace until death to attain eternal life, to have dispelled the exaggerated fears about losing it will also dispel those about salvation. As fears about this point do great harm to a certain number of minds, however, it will not be useless to discuss the point.

Is it then true that few will be saved? Massillon says so in his celebrated sermon on the fewness of the elect. Many other preachers and moralists have said the same, though in a less exaggerated way; and this is perhaps the greatest obstacle placed in the path of confidence.

This assertion, then, is worthy of a thorough examination. First, is it of faith that few are saved? Certainly not. Faith teaches nothing of the kind. Is it a truth? I know not, and the preachers and authors of whom I speak know no more than I do; for if it is a truth, it is one of the next world, which can be known only by revelation. There can only be an opinion about it, more or less probable.

But how did they dare to preach such terrifying doctrine without being certain of its truth? I believe that having to preach before a court, or in great cities, and having to deal with presumptuous sinners, they thought they could not inspire too much fear. But I am persuaded that if they had lived in our days, they would have been most careful not to put forward these conjectures, for the greatest sinners in our days, instead of having too much confidence, have not enough, because they crown their sinful lives by dying in despair.

There is no reason, then, it seems to me, to preach this conjectural assertion in these days, for it is not prudent to distress pious people without doing any good to sinners.

No doubt those who have read Massillon, or the other sermons about the fewness of the elect, will be astonished at what I have said, and I foresee their objection. Are you aware, they will say, that the fewness of the elect is affirmed by Scripture, and by the testimony of the Fathers?

I know that the theologians of whom I speak quote some texts of Scripture and some passages from the Fathers. But does this prove that this opinion is of faith, or at least a truth? Certainly not. Therefore, I believe it to be only an opinion, and my readers, after having weighed my reasons, will judge.

I ask what authority those who preach this sentence have to lay it before us as an article of faith. Is it the doctrine of the Church, or have they some clear texts of Holy Scripture, or the teaching of Tradition? It seems to me that they have none of these.

The Teaching of the Church

The Church has never pronounced on this question. She knows that commentators maintain different opinions, and she has not interfered in their contentions. Actually, I have just misspoken, for her voice has been twice heard in this conflict, but what she has said is against, rather than for, the sentence we are discussing.

First, she condemned Berruyer for restricting the number of the elect by saying they are the faithful only.

Second, she has said in her prayers for the first Sunday in Lent that the number of those who will attain to glory is known to God only. "O God, who alone knowest the number of the elect who are to be placed in supernal felicity."

The Words of Holy Scripture

Neither does Scripture teach us anything clearly on this terrifying matter. I know very well that the preachers of this sentence quote many texts in their favor; but I also know they have not the force of a proof. To prove a text, it must be taken in its literal sense. In its other senses, it can edify, affect, and instruct, but no good or strictly logical conclusion can be drawn; all interpreters agree on this canon. And the passages quoted by these preachers can be taken only in an attributed sense, for in their literal sense they do not apply to the point. To prove my assertion, I will quote these passages, and then I will expound their literal signification.

First, it is said in St. Matthew, "Many are called but few chosen" (Matt. 20:16). The sentence is then repeated in the same Gospel. "All run indeed," says the apostle in 1 Corinthians, "but one winneth the prize" (1 Cor. 9:24). St. John says in Revelation, "And the stars from heaven fell upon the earth, as the fig tree casteth its green figs when it is shaken by a great wind" (Rev. 6:13). St. Peter reminds us that, in the deluge, "a few, that is eight souls, were saved by water" (1 Pet. 3:20). We read that when four of the five cities were consumed, three persons only were spared.

In the book of Numbers we find that of the six hundred thousand men who went out of Egypt, only two entered the promised land: Caleb and Joshua. Isaiah says that "hell hath enlarged her soul, and opened her mouth without any bounds" (5:14). The same prophet compares those spared from God's anger, "as if a few olives that remain should be shaken out of the olive tree, or grapes when the vintage is ended" (24:13). Lastly, Jesus Christ tells us, "Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat; but narrow is the gate and strait is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it" (Matt. 7:14).

Let us begin by investigating the use that has been made of the less important passages. We will then discuss the more formidable, and especially those that explicitly declare the sentence. First, then, I say that the texts taken from St. Peter, Revelation, Genesis, Numbers, Isaiah, and St. Paul have nothing to do with the number of the elect, and consequently can refer to the matter only in an applied sense, which forms no proof. We have only to read the chapters attentively from which they are taken, to be convinced of this.

Thus, first, does the text from St. Peter refer to the fewness of the elect? Not the least in the world. The apostle, in this chapter, is not drawing a comparison between the victims of the flood and souls that perish – between the people in the ark and those who are saved. He simply says that baptism saves souls as the ark of Noah saved the eight persons who were within it. I am willing, however, to admit the allusion that is supposed to be found here, but what does it prove? Were all those who perished in the flood lost? Such is not the opinion of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and the best commentators; neither is it that of the apostle himself, because he assigned the greater number of these unhappy beings to limbo, from which our Savior had released them.

Second, the text from Revelation proves nothing on the point. Some interpreters understand by the fall of the stars the multitude of apostates that Antichrist will cause. Others take the words literally, as in accordance with our Lord's own prediction: "the stars shall fall from Heaven" (Matt. 24:29); but no one I know of imagines that they allude to the condemnation of souls.

The history of the ruin of the four cities is also foreign to the question. It is a fact recording God's justice, or rather His clemency, because He said, "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten" (Gen. 18:32). It is true that only Lot's family escaped, but what does that prove? Its application to the fewness of the elect is not indicated by the Holy Spirit, even by the nature of the story. And no commentator has seen the matter in this literal sense.

The other passage in Genesis, on the entrance into the promised land, bears along with it no proof, for to give it that, it would be necessary to take in a figurative sense that which is clearly only literal. And here again I can point to the silence of interpreters. Isaiah says that "hell hath enlarged her soul and her mouth without bounds," but what does he mean by the word hell? Interpreters say he was speaking of the cemetery in the valley of Hennon, and this leads us to believe the prophet was speaking of temporal calamities.

As to the second passage of Isaiah, where he speaks of the olives and the grapes that have escaped the gleaner's hand, I answer: first, interpreters understand it to mean the time of Antichrist; secondly, I reply by bringing another text of the same prophet that refers to the number of the elect and is in opposition to the first. He says, speaking of our Savior, "Because His soul hath labored, He shall see and be filled" (53:11). And with what does His Father promise He shall be filled, if not with the salvation of souls, the object of His labors and His sufferings? And, then, He will content Himself with the olives and grapes left by the gleaner? It is an absurdity.

Thirdly, in all parables that treat of the good and the wicked, the first are compared to what is best, and the last to what is worst. Look at the parables of the cockle and wheat, the fishes, and the corn and the chaff. And here it would be quite different if it applied to the elect and the condemned. Therefore, there is no question of them in this passage.

St. Paul says that in the race one only wins the prize. If this means salvation, there is no one among the elect but our Blessed Lady. Is it not a saying that a thing that proves too much proves nothing? But St. Paul meant perfection, and not salvation. The very comparison itself proves it: for he who receives the prize does not obtain it because he runs, for they all run, but because he runs better than the others.

We now come to those texts that appear to be more positive and therefore deserve a more serious examination. They are from the Gospel, and we will discuss them with especial care. Jesus Christ assures us in Matthew, chapter 7, that many men walk in the broad road that leads to their perdition and that few follow the narrow path that leads to life.

Answer: If I can bring other words of our Lord that are entirely opposed to these, it will be clear that the first do not prove what it is imagined they do; otherwise we should have to say that our Lord did not always speak consistently, which would be a blasphemy. And here is a passage that I beg my readers to compare with that which is brought against me. "Few will be saved," He says in the first (Matt. 7:13–14). "Many," says He elsewhere, "shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 8:11).

The words brought forward, then, need explanation. Therefore, either our Savior was speaking of the mass of mankind – and then it is certain that many are lost – or else He was simply referring to the Jews, of whom few believed in His word; and this version seems the most probable, as He was speaking of His own time and not the future. This is the opinion of Father Salmeron on this passage.

We have now only to examine those parables where the terrible sentence is found in so many words. What answer is there to this most positive declaration: "Many are called but few are chosen?" None, if it be detached from its context, but taken in connection with that, the heart is speedily relieved. When there is a difficult phrase in a discourse, it is necessary to consider it in its relation to the whole, and this is the only means of finding out its real meaning.

First Parable in Matthew

Our Lord tells us that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. It was at the end of His discourse, and in order that it might be better understood, He related the following parable to His hearers:
    The kingdom of heaven is like to a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard: and having agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into the vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing in the marketplace idle. And he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just. And they went their way.

    And again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did in like manner. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them: Why stand you here all the day idle? They said unto him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith to them: Go you also into my vineyard.

    And when evening was come, the Lord of the vineyard said to his steward: Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first. When, therefore, they were come that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. And when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more; and they also received every man a penny. And, receiving it, they murmured against the master of the house. But he answering, said to one of them. Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what thine is, and go thy way. I will also give to this last even as to thee. So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt. 20:1–16)
Let us first explain the meaning of this parable. According to all the Fathers, the householder is God, the vineyard is the Church, the workmen are those invited to labor in it, the penny eternal life. The laborers are sent in at different hours, and these hours are the different times of life, and the evening is the judgment. That the wages are equal indicates that God has less regard to the length of time than to the good use we make of it; and, therefore, on the last day, the first may be the last and the last first.

I ask, can the consequence that few men will be saved be drawn from this discourse? It seems to me that, logically, it is just the contrary, because all those spoken of in this parable were saved.

But, then, I shall be asked, "What is the meaning of the last sentence?" I reply to my opponents: Anything you like, provided it is not this meaning on which we differ, for it is impossible that our Lord could have reasoned in this manner: all obtain heaven, so there are few of the elect. If I must give my opinion, however, it seems to me that these last words have reference to what has gone before; and, to prove it, they are connected by the particle for. The sense in which I take it is this: the first who came in great numbers were, however, the last; for although all were called to be first, nevertheless few obtained it. If this interpretation be rejected, it does not matter. It is certain that the one that I defend is approved by most of the Fathers, and, besides, so obscure a text can prove nothing.

Second Parable in Matthew

A king invited many people to his son's marriage feast. The guests refused to come. Others were called, and the banquet hall was filled; but one man came in without a wedding garment. The king ordered him to be cast into exterior darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. After this sentence he added: "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:1–14).

Everyone agrees that this means Heaven; but among the large number of guests, one only was banished. The sentence that ends this parable cannot, therefore, have the severe meaning that is given to it. It relates to the multitude of the Jews who, though the first invited, would not come and were replaced by a small number of faithful souls; for we should remark that our Lord speaks of the present and not the future.

I confine myself to these two parables because all the others that are brought forward are rather for instead of against the great number of the elect. Let us indicate them rapidly: it will suffice to make the thing certain.

Of ten virgins, five went into the banquet; of three servants to whom the Master gave talents, two deserved the reward; there was less cockle than wheat in the harvest field, for we separate that which is least; if there was much chaff, there were still more grains of corn; there are fewer goats than sheep in a flock; and when a fisherman empties his net, he keeps more fish than he throws away.

If some minds do not like these explanations, it does not the less prove that the words are not clear, and, consequently, it is wrong to bring them forward in support of so alarming an opinion. Moreover, we know that parables were employed as illustrations rather than doctrines, and cannot therefore determine a disputed point.

Now, let us see whether the authority of the Fathers will prove more than Scripture does.

The Opinion of Some of the Fathers

If it were the common opinion of the Fathers that the number of the elect is few, we should admit it to be a truth; but as there are but isolated instances among them, it remains an open question of controversy. And as our opponents can quote only about half a dozen on their side, we may believe the others are against it; for on such a grave question, which they must often have met with, their silence is worthy of notice. But is it certain that my opponents have even this small number of the Fathers on their side? This I will now consider.

St. Jerome says, in his commentary on Isaiah 24:13, that among a hundred thousand sinners who wait for death to be converted, there is scarcely one who is saved. I acknowledge that he says that; but I deny that it follows that the greater number of men are lost. In the Church, there is a very large number who do not need conversion for their salvation, and there is perhaps only one kingdom (which I do not wish to name) where the mass of sinners wait for death to be converted. Everywhere else the majority come to confession, receive absolution, and approach Holy Communion from time to time, from which we may form a legitimate presumption in their favor. As to the sinners in the country of which I made an exception, as they have not all the means of salvation that they have a right to hope for, I think they will receive special graces at the time of death. At the most, the opinion of a single Father is not of much authority.

St. Chrysostom, preaching to the people of Antioch, asserted that, of all that multitude, there were not a hundred who were in the way of salvation. What does that prove? We know that the population of Antioch was then composed of idolaters – Arians, Pelagians, semi-Pelagians, and bad Catholics. It is clear that such men were not living in a manner to render their salvation probable. And we have again to remark that the saint was preaching of the present and not of the future. I add that to draw a conclusion from a particular case for a general one is a sophism.

A terrifying sentence is borrowed from St. Gregory the Great: "It sometimes happens that those who embrace the Faith are not among the number of the elect." The answer is not a difficult one. No one denies that Catholics are sometimes lost, but sometimes does not mean "often." This sentence, then, is foreign to the matter of which I treat.

All the proofs brought forward to prop up the argument that few are saved being valueless, it is probable that our opponents will find a larger company in Heaven than they think.

But let us take the matter at its worst. If it is true that few men are saved, it is because there are few who are diligent in prayer, and few who pray with that unshaken confidence to which nothing is refused. If all would fulfill this easy condition, all would persevere in divine grace until death and consequently would be saved.

If, then, anyone who prays with confidence will neither sin nor perish, the multitude of those who sin and perish should increase our confidence, instead of destroying or diminishing it, in the same way as, in the time of a pestilence, we see those people die who refuse to apply certain remedies, and this sight instead of depressing us, urges us on to use the remedies to save ourselves.

Someone once asked the Son of God: "Lord, are they few that are saved?" But He answered, "Strive to enter in by the narrow gate" (Luke 13:23–24). And if I rightly understand this wise answer, it seems to say that it signifies little to us whether the number of the elect be great or small, but it signifies a good deal that we should do what is necessary to obtain eternal life.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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