"Let no one wear a mask, otherwise he will do ill; and if he has one, let him burn it."

St Philip Neri

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"Men should often renew their good resolutions, and not lose heart because they are tempted against them."

St Philip Neri

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"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.  (1877 - 1964)  taught at the Angelicum in Rome from 1909 to 1960, and served for many years as a consulter to the Holy Office and other Roman Congregations.


By Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange,OP





Why does the soul become immutably fixed, in good or in evil, immediately after death? This mystery might be studied after that of the particular judgment, because it becomes more clear by what revelation tells us of this judgment. Nevertheless, since the time of merit is finished, we must study this immutability first.

Let us see what Scripture and tradition tell us of the nature and immutability of the soul. Then we will examine what theologians say in explanation and will distinguish three different explanations of this
immutability. [87]

Immutability in Itself

We do not speak here of the question, studied by physiologists and physicians: When does real death, not merely apparent death, take place? It seems certain in many cases, particularly in accidental and sudden death, that latent life can remain many hours in the organism which a moment before was perfectly sound. It can last, it seems, at least a half-hour when death was brought on by a malady which for a long time has undermined the organism. We consider here only real death, the moment when the soul is separated from the body.

The ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches that the human soul, immediately after death, undergoes judgment on all the actions, good or bad, of its earthly existence. This judgment supposes that the time of merit has passed. This common doctrine has not been solemnly defined, but it is based on Scripture and tradition. There are no merits after death, contrary to what many Protestants teach.

Already in the Old Testament [88] we read: "It is easy before God in the day of death to reward everyone according to his ways, . . . and in the end of a man is the disclosing of his works." [89] According to the New Testament [90] the last judgment is concerned solely with the acts of the present life. In the Gospel according to St. Luke [91] there is question of particular judgment. The rich man and Lazarus are judged, each on the acts of his life, and are judged irrevocably. Abraham replies to the rich man: "Between us and you there is fixed a great chaos."

Jesus said to the good thief: "This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise." [92] We are urged to vigilance and to penance, that we may not be surprised by death. After the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, He says: "Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour." [93] St. Paul is still more explicit: "We must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the proper things of the body, according as he hath done, whether it be good or evil." [94] Again: "Behold now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation." [95] Again: "Therefore, whilst we have time, let us work good to all men." [96] And again: "I have a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better." [97] In the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Exhort one another every day whilst it is called today: that none of you be hardened." [98] And again: "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment." [99] The following verse makes allusion to the last judgment, but this last judgment also deals exclusively with the acts of the present life.

In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus says: "I must work the work of Him that sent Me whilst it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work." [100] The Fathers [101] have often explained this text of St. John in this sense, particularly Saints Cyprian, Hilary, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. These Fathers teach that after death no one can longer either merit or demerit.

This, too, is manifestly the doctrine of the ordinary universal magistracy of the Church. Although there is no solemn definition on this point, there are declarations of the Church which are to be understood in this sense. The Second Council of Lyons says: "The souls of those who die in the state of mortal sin or with original sin go down at once into hell, there to suffer, though not all with equal pains." [102] We find the same expression in the Council of Florence, [103] and in the Constitution Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII. [104] Leo X [105] condemns this proposition of Luther: "The souls in purgatory are not certain of their salvation, at least not all of them, and it cannot be proved by Scripture nor by theological reasoning that they can no longer merit or that they cannot increase in charity." Lastly the Council of the Vatican proposed to promulgate this dogmatic
definition: After death, which is the terminus of our life's road, all of us must be made manifest before the tribunal of Christ, [106] where each one is to give an account of what he himself did in the body, either good or evil. Nor does there remain after this mortal life any place for penance that would lead to justification. [107]

Immutability in Its Cause

Some theologians, notably Scotus and Suarez, [108] think that obstinacy, immutability in evil, is explained both for man and for demon by saying that God no longer offers the grace of conversion, and that the despair which follows confirms them in this state of obstinacy. [109]

In this explanation we find a difficulty. A great Thomistic theologian, Cardinal Cajetan, [110] sought to explain the obstinacy of man in the same manner as St. Thomas explains the obstinacy of the demon. The
Cardinal says in substance: The human soul, in the first instant of its separation from the body, commences to judge in the same manner as do pure spirits. But a pure spirit has a judgment that is immutable, a judgment that resembles the judgment of God. And why? For God the reason is clear: because from all eternity God sees all that can happen, all that will happen. God can learn nothing, nothing that could
change His eternal decrees. Now there is a proportional truth for the pure spirit, the pure created spirit. We on earth, living in time, see only successively the different aspects of an object. Hence, after having chosen, we can learn something new and thereby modify our choice. The pure spirit, on the contrary, has a knowledge entirely intuitive, sees simultaneously all aspects, sees simultaneously what is for it and what is against it, sees all that is to be considered. Having thus freely chosen, it can learn nothing new, nothing that could change its choice. From this moment its choice remains immutable, and resembles God's decrees, free but immutable. This follows from the perfection of the intelligence which characterizes pure spirits.

Hence, according to the Cardinal, the soul separated from its body, at the very instant when it begins its life as a separated soul, chooses immutably that which it wills by a last instantaneous act, meritorious or demeritorious. At that moment it fixes itself in its choice, and therefore understands why God, infinitely good, no longer offers the grace of conversion to the soul fixed in obstinacy.

This opinion of Cardinal Cajetan, however ingenious it is, has not been accepted, at least not entirely, by later Thomists or by other theologians. They have replied: If it were so, then a sinner, dying in the state of mortal sin, could reconcile himself at once after death. Conversely, a just man, dying in the state of grace, would lose himself by a sin committed immediately after death, after the separation. But this position seems contrary to the testimony of Scripture. [111] Subsequent Thomists [112] answer Cajetan thus: "According to Scripture, man cannot merit except before death. This truth is expressed most clearly in the words of our Savior: 'I must work the work of Him that sent Me, whilst it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work.'" [113] Thus these theologians admit, as a common teaching, that one of the conditions of merit is that man be still in the state of life, a viator, a voyager, a traveler. Consequently it is man who merits, not the soul separated from the body.

What, then, is the solution? It lies between the two preceding solutions and above them. It is the golden mean, and at the same time the summit which best expresses the thought of St. Thomas. This view is thus explained by the great theologian, Sylvester of Ferrara: "Although the soul in the first instant of separation from the body has a view, an apprehension, intellectually immutable, and although it commences at that moment to be obstinate either in evil or in good, nevertheless at this same time it no longer has a possibility of merit or demerit, whatever others say on the matter, because merit or demerit belongs not to the soul alone, but to the man, the viator, the traveler, the man who still lives. But in the first instant of separation man no longer exists, hence he can no longer merit. Whence then comes obstinacy in evil? It is caused, initially by the changeable apprehension of such and such an end, during the time when the soul is still united to the body. It is caused definitively by the unchangeable apprehension of the soul from that moment on when it is separated from the body. The same truth holds good for immutable fixation in good." [114] This seems indeed to be the thought of St. Thomas. [115] And Scripture says in this sense: "If the tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be." [116]

This notion, we say, seems to contain in a higher synthesis what is true in the two preceding views. First, obstinacy in evil or fixation in good are caused initially by the last merit or demerit of the soul united to the body. Secondly, they are caused in a definitive fashion by the immovable apprehension or intuition by the separated soul which adheres henceforth immutably to that which it has chosen before death. Briefly to repeat, the soul begins to determine itself by the last free act of the present life, and it attains this fixation immutably, in regard to its knowledge and its will, in the first instant after death. Thus it immobilizes itself in its own choice. Hence it is not a lack of God's mercy which fixes the soul in obstinacy.

But, then, says an objector, the liberty of this second act, at the precise instant following death, is diminished by its conformity with the act which preceded it in life. We must reply that the liberty of the second act is indeed diminished, in the case of the sinner who has not repented before death, because "whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin." [117] But in the case of the just man who has died in the state of grace, the liberty of the act which he makes immediately after death is greater, because liberty, which is a consequence of intelligence, grows greater with the lucidity of that intelligence. Thus the liberty of the angel, and consequently much more that of God, is much greater than our liberty. Nevertheless the choice of God, though it be sovereignly free, is posited in an immutable fashion and does not change. It will be the same with our free act posited immediately after our death. It will no longer change.

When, at the last judgment, the soul again receives its body, it will not change, because it is immobilized in its own choice. Repossession of its body will not change its choice of its last end.

This truth is easier to grasp for immutability in good, but it holds good likewise for obstinacy in evil. Only we must note that the mysteries of iniquity are more obscure than the mysteries of grace, because the
mysteries of grace are in themselves sovereignly luminous, whereas the others are darkness itself.

Entrance into the state of separation from the body fixes forever the freely determined choice before death, just as in winter frost fixes moisture on the window in varied figures. But the best image is that of
Scripture: "If a tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there it shall be."

We can complete this doctrine by what St. Thomas [118] says in Contra Gentes. Every man judges according to his inclination, especially according to the inclination whereby he has chosen his last end. Thus the ambitious man judges by his inclination to pride, the humble, by his inclination to humility. Our inclination to our last end can change as long as the soul is united to the body (which has been given to it as an instrument of tendency to its end), but this inclination can no longer change after separation from the body, because then the soul judges in an immutable fashion, according to this last inclination, and thus is fixed in its choice. The humble man will continue to judge definitively according to the inclination to virtue; the proud man will continue to judge according to his pride, with a bitterness indeed that will never end. His pride is now eternalized, hence his voluntary choice, fixing himself in obstinacy, is forever perverted, incapable of choosing the only road of return, namely, humility and obedience. [119]

Let us listen to a second objection: Cannot the damned, learning from their own suffering, change their mind, and make a new choice?

Theology replies with St. Thomas: [120] The damned do not learn, practically and effectively, from their sufferings. Without doubt, they indeed wish not to suffer, but they do not will for that reason to come
back to God, because the only road possible is that of humility and obedience, and this they refuse. If the Lord opened this road, they would not take it. They do not regret their sins as guilt, says St. Thomas, [121] but only as the cause of their sufferings. They do not
have the repentance which would lead them to ask forgiveness. They have only remorse. And between penance and remorse there is an abyss.

A third objection: But it is incredible that the demon can prefer his proud isolation to supernatural beatitude, to the vision of God, to a good infinitely superior to the bitter joys of pride. Theology, [122]
resting on revelation, replies that the demon once for all chose his own intellectual life, his own natural beatitude, proud isolation rather than the other road of tending toward God, rather than humility and
obedience. Supernatural beatitude he cannot receive except by God's grace, which he would share in common with men, so far inferior to himself. The characteristic of the proud is to please themselves in their own excellence, to the point of rejecting everything that could restrain them in this complacence.

Even among men, we find those whose pride in mathematics, say, or rationalist philosophy, leads them to reject the gospel, even to the point of denying all the miracles which confirm the gospel and the Church. Some persevere all their life in this negation. [123] Others, like Lamennais, abandon the Church, because they wish to defend her in their own manner, not in her manner. They think their own wisdom higher than hers. Exalted, they fall by pride, as did the demon, whom
they imitate.

What shall be our practical conclusion? It is this: that it is sovereignly important not to delay conversion. We can be surprised by death, and our last free act decides our eternity, happy or unhappy.

Likewise, we must pray for those who seem to be departing from God. Benedict XV urges us to have Masses celebrated for them for the grace of a good death.

I knew a man who had been reared as a good Christian, but who had wandered away from God. After having lost his wife and his only son, the son being an angel of piety, he was assailed by a terrible temptation to despair, a temptation which lasted many months. He determined to kill himself. On the day when he went to do so, at the instant when, in Tulle, he was about to throw himself into a ravine, his sister and the Carmelite nuns were praying ardently for him. At the very moment our Lord appeared to him, sad and sorrowful, and called him by his baptismal name: "Joseph." After this view of the mercy of God, Joseph Maisonneuve, [124] that was his name, understood that the redemption was meant also for him. He was converted completely. He became sweet and humble of heart. He expiated his sins by severe penance up to his last hour, dying in the odor of sanctity. He is called the holy man of Tulle. Many wonderful cures were wrought by his intercession. Even during life his prayer worked wonders. In his own village he had a friend who led a bad life. The saint prayed nightly, his arms in the form of a cross, and he performed severe penances to obtain this grace. One day he learned that his friend had shot himself, but that he was not yet dead. The saint at once went to him. The dying man had twenty-four hours to live. Joseph Maisonneuve exhorted him so well that he repented and died a most Christian death.

The important thing is to die well. For this end we must remember our Savior's words: "He that is not with Me is against Me." [125] But it is also true to say, and Jesus said it to His apostles: "He that is not against you is for you." [126] Those who seek sincerely for religious truth are already replying to the actual grace which carries them on to good. In these souls we see the beginning of that interior word, understood by St. Bernard and repeated by Pascal: "Thou wouldst not search for Me if thou hadst not already found Me." Let us recall again the word of St. John of the Cross: "In the evening of our life we will be judged by love, by the sincerity of our love for God."

An Addition

Do all men perceive before death a sweeping view of their past life? And would this view serve as sufficient grace for conversion? People who have been on the point of drowning declare that they have received this intuition.

To this question we must answer that the manner of death varies widely, from the death of saints where possibly a revelation at times announces the day and the hour, to the death of the Pharisees to whom our Lord said: "You will die in your sin."

The immobility of the soul, whether in good or in evil, commences freely in the present life, and is completed by a free act comformable to the preceding act at the first instant of separation from the body. This truth clarifies the question which occupies us now.

Obstinacy can begin long before death. Hardened sinners can be surprised by a sudden death, in which case they certainly do not have a global view of their past life, nor time to be converted. Such is the punishment of this special sin, which consists in continual delay of conversion, or, possibly, in the will not to be converted at all.

Sinners who are not hardened receive actual graces more frequently, and among these graces there may be that of a full view of their past life. If so, it is a special effect of divine mercy, to hinder them from becoming obstinate.

Others live indeed in the state of grace, but they are feeble. God, in mercy, often grants them a global view of their past life. to encourage them to persevere.

God wills not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted. Here we might cite those texts of Scripture [127] which express the universality of God's salvific will, whereby His Son gave Himself for all on the cross. This reply is in harmony with many private revelations, and with the experience of many who barely escaped sudden death.

Nevertheless, to put off conversion would be presumption. We must not forget that God, infinitely merciful, is also sovereignly just. He must render to each according to his works. Most certainly, God's providence is irreproachable, and no sinner was ever lost because he lacked divine succor. [128] The judgments of God are always right, perfectly just, and justice does not manifest severity except where souls have abused mercy.



87. Cf. St. Thomas, Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chaps. 91, 92, 94, 95 (Commentary of Ferrariensis); De veritate, q. 24, a. 11; la, q. 64, a. 2 (Commentary of Cajetan); Salmanticenses, De gratia, de merito, Disp. 1, dub. 4, no. 36; Billot, De novissimis, 1921, p. 33; Dict. theol. cath., "Mort."
88. Ecclus. 11:12.
89. Ecclus. 9:10.
90. Matt. 25:13; Luke 13:22; John 5:29.
91. Luke 16:19-31.
92. Ibid., 23:43.
93. Matt. 25:13; Mark 13:33.
94. II Cor. 5:10.
95. Ibid., 6:2.
96. Gal. 6:10.
97. Phil 1:23.
98. Heb 3:13.
99. Ibid., 9:27.
100. John 9:4.
101. Cf. A. de Journel, Enchiridion patristicum, Index theologicus, no. 584.
102. Denz., no. 464.
103. Ibid., no. 693.
104. Ibid., no. 531.
105. Ibid., no. 778.
106. II Cor. 5:10.
107. Mansi, Concil., LIII, 175.
108. Cf. Scotus, II Sent., dist. 7; Suarez, De angelis, Bk. III; chap. 10; Bk. VIII, chap. 10.
109. The souls in purgatory, so these authors say, are preserved from sin by a special protection of Providence.
110. Ia, q.64, a.2, no. 18.
111. Thus Suarez and many others.
112. Thus speak in particular Ferrariensis, Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95, and the Salmanticenses. Cursus theol., De gratia, de merito, disp. 1, dub. 4, no. 36.
113. John 9:4.
114. Ferrariensis, In Contra Gentes, 4, 95.
115. Cf. Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95, and De veritate, q. 24, a. 11.
116. Eccles. 11:3.
117. John 8:34.
118. Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95.
119. In illustration, we may point to a congenital illness which remains throughout life, or the dispositions on entering into a permanent form of life. If a man enters rightly into marriage, the good disposition with which he does so becomes fixed for life. If he enters with an evil disposition, this disposition, alas, generally persists and becomes a habitual evil. In the motive on entering religion we find the same difference. See, further on, the chapter on the knowledge of the separated soul, where the doctrine we are now proposing will be confirmed.
120. Supplementum, q. 98, a.2.
121. Ibid.
122. Ia, q.63, a.3.
123. When we point to the miracles of Christ, of modern saints, of those at Lourdes, they reply: "Yes, but anyone can claim miracles." They do not wish to see with what seriousness these miracles are examined by physicians and theologians, and what severity is shown by the Sacred Congregation, which rejectsmany probable miracles and retains only those that are certain.
124. Joseph Maisonneuve: life written by a former
superior of the Diocesan Missionaries of Tulle, 1935.
125. In the actual economy of salvation, every man is necessarily either in the state of grace or in the state of sin, that is, he is turned toward God or away from Him. Matt. 12:30.
126. Mark 9:39.
127. Ezech. 33:11.
128. This lack could arise only from divine negligence. Now divine negligence is a contradiction in terms. Even if it happened only once, God would no longer be God, because he would not be wise. Providence would be an empty word. These negations are a very evident blasphemy, which manifests in its own manner, by contrast, the chiaroscuro of the divine mystery which we are now speaking of.