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
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 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  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." 
According to the New Testament  the last judgment
is concerned solely with the acts of the present
life. In the Gospel according to St. Luke  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
Jesus said to the good thief: "This day thou shalt be
with Me in paradise."  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."  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." 
Again: "Behold now is the acceptable time, behold now
is the day of salvation."  Again: "Therefore,
whilst we have time, let us work good to all men."
 And again: "I have a desire to be dissolved and
to be with Christ, a thing by far the better." 
In the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Exhort one another
every day whilst it is called today: that none of you
be hardened."  And again: "It is appointed unto
men once to die, and after this the judgment." 
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."  The
Fathers  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
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."  We find the same expression in the
Council of Florence,  and in the Constitution
Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII.  Leo X 
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,  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
Immutability in Its Cause
Some theologians, notably Scotus and Suarez, 
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. 
In this explanation we find a difficulty. A great
Thomistic theologian, Cardinal Cajetan,  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
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.  Subsequent Thomists  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.'"  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."  This seems
indeed to be the thought of St. Thomas.  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." 
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."  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
Scripture: "If a tree fall to the south or to the
north, in what place soever it shall fall, there it
We can complete this doctrine by what St. Thomas
 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. 
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:  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,  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, 
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
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
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.  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
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
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,  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."  But it is also true to
say, and Jesus said it to His apostles: "He that is
not against you is for you."  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."
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
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
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
God wills not the death of the sinner, but that he be
converted. Here we might cite those texts of
Scripture  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.  The
judgments of God are always right, perfectly just,
and justice does not manifest severity except where
souls have abused mercy.
|| 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.
no. 36; Billot, De novissimis, 1921, p. 33; Dict.
theol. cath., "Mort."
|| Ecclus. 11:12.
|| Ecclus. 9:10.
|| Matt. 25:13; Luke 13:22; John 5:29.
|| Luke 16:19-31.
|| Ibid., 23:43.
|| Matt. 25:13; Mark 13:33.
|| II Cor. 5:10.
|| Ibid., 6:2.
|| Gal. 6:10.
|| Phil 1:23.
|| Heb 3:13.
|| Ibid., 9:27.
|| John 9:4.
|| Cf. A. de Journel, Enchiridion patristicum, Index
theologicus, no. 584.
|| Denz., no. 464.
|| Ibid., no. 693.
|| Ibid., no. 531.
|| Ibid., no. 778.
|| II Cor. 5:10.
|| Mansi, Concil., LIII, 175.
|| Cf. Scotus, II Sent., dist. 7; Suarez, De angelis,
Bk. III; chap. 10; Bk. VIII, chap. 10.
|| The souls in purgatory, so these authors say, are
preserved from sin by a special protection of
|| Ia, q.64, a.2, no. 18.
|| Thus Suarez and many others.
|| Thus speak in particular Ferrariensis, Contra
Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95, and the Salmanticenses.
Cursus theol., De gratia, de merito, disp. 1, dub. 4,
|| John 9:4.
|| Ferrariensis, In Contra Gentes, 4, 95.
|| Cf. Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95, and De
veritate, q. 24, a. 11.
|| Eccles. 11:3.
|| John 8:34.
|| Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 95.
|| In illustration, we may point to a congenital
illness which remains throughout life, or the
dispositions on entering into a permanent form of
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
on the knowledge of the separated soul, where the
doctrine we are now proposing will be confirmed.
|| Supplementum, q. 98, a.2.
|| Ia, q.63, a.3.
|| When we point to the miracles of Christ, of
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
by the Sacred Congregation, which rejectsmany
miracles and retains only those that are certain.
|| Joseph Maisonneuve: life written by a former
superior of the Diocesan Missionaries of Tulle, 1935.
|| 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
from Him. Matt. 12:30.
|| Mark 9:39.
|| Ezech. 33:11.
|| This lack could arise only from divine
Now divine negligence is a contradiction in terms.
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.