There is a lot of confusion among Catholics regarding what we ought to do to save our souls. Some Catholics say it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in as long as you are good, and some say it matters very much. Some say it’s enough to obey the Ten Commandments, while some say you ought to do many of the approved devotions, e.g. the rosary, the various chaplets, various novenas to the saints, etc. It can get even more confusing when the authorities say differing things. For example, one priest says even atheists and homosexuals can be saved, while another priest says they cannot.
What should we believe in?
I think the confusion lies in the vague understanding of what ‘saved’ means. Basically, ‘saved’ for us Catholics means you get to heaven; but this term is vague because:
1) There are many ways to get to heaven.
2) The RCC teaches that there are many ranks or levels in heaven (degrees of supernatural happiness)
3) There are many awards to be sought for in heaven, e.g. martyr’s crown, virgin’s crown, awards for being a good spouse or parent, awards for being a good priest, awards for the high level of virtue in your soul with a separate award for each virtue, etc.
Let’s consider these three in turn.
1) Holy Mother Church teaches that to get to heaven, we must not have an unrepented mortal sin in our souls. Therefore, if a person, let’s say Mark, lives a lifetime of mortal sins, yet before his death was able to go to confession and express imperfect contrition, he gets to go to heaven. Yippee! BUT, since he has imperfect contrition, he will suffer in purgatory first. The length of his stay in purgatory will depend on a variety of factors, but the point here is he is saved. If, God willing, Mark expresses perfect contrition before death and does an indulgenced act, it is even possible for him to go straight to heaven.
So you see that the priest who says that even atheists and homosexuals, etc. can be saved is not exactly going against Catholic teachings. Likewise, the priest who says that atheists and homosexuals cannot be saved is not going against the first priest either. If these sins are not repented, then the sinner will not be saved.
In other words, we are saved depending on whether we don’t have unrepented mortal sins in our souls. A lifetime of mortal sins can still be repented on the very last split-second before death. God is merciful.
2) Ok, Mark is saved. This is great when compared to hell, but not so great when we now consider the ranks in heaven. Mark’s rank in heaven will be low compared to another person, let’s say Luke, who has lived a life of virtue and has constantly tried to increase his love for God hence meriting more sanctifying grace. Luke is like the person who has worked hard to increase his nest egg, while Mark is like the person who did not work at all. While it is true that in heaven no one will be unhappy, the Catholic faith also says that some souls will experience a deeper or more intense happiness depending on the amount of sanctifying grace they have which in turn is dependent on the kind of life they have lived while on earth.
This is where the question of religious practices comes in. While it is true that you can be saved (enter heaven) even if you don’t pray outside of Sunday mass and don’t practice the many disciplines Catholics are encouraged to practice, it is better to do so to merit an increase in sanctifying grace.
In other words, the more you pray, the more saints you ask to pray for you, and the more pleasing acts you do for God’s sake, the more you will merit sanctifying grace. The more sanctifying grace you have, the higher your rank and the closer you are to God. The closer you are to God, the deeper and more intense your supernatural happiness will be for all eternity. REPEAT: FOR ALL ETERNITY.
Here is a further note on the saints praying for you: The higher the rank of that saint, the more powerful their intercession will be. While it is difficult to say who is more powerful, St. Francis or St. Dominic (LOL!), we know without a doubt that Our Lady is the most powerful of all. Hail to the Queen! This is why many Catholics will encourage you to pray the rosary and even say that the rosary is not an option because the merits of Our Lady are far superior than the merits of any saint.
The term ‘not an option’ here is vague which, again, may lead to confusion. The RCC says that the rosary is not essential to salvation in the sense that those who do not pray it are not necessarily damned and also that those who pray it are not necessarily saved, but it is necessary in the sense that those who pray it are more likely to be saved and also to obtain a higher rank in heaven because of the graces given through this devotion.
3) Now we come to the third point. Everyone can do things to increase their sanctifying grace, but not everyone can be a martyr. In the first place, not everyone is given the opportunity to be a martyr. I’m not talking about standing up against evil, rather I am talking about actually dying for Christ and for the Church. Likewise, not everyone can be a perpetual virgin, not everyone can be a spouse, a parent, a priest, and not everyone can achieve a high level of virtue for all the virtues. The third point is about the specific awards we can achieve for ourselves depending on what God is calling us to be, what we are capable of achieving, and the opportunities given to us by God.
Let’s use Mark and Luke again for our examples. If Mark was called to live a celibate life and after getting to know himself better he knows that he is capable of this (e.g. he can imagine himself being celibate forever, he does not desire married life, etc.) then he ought to take this as a chance to achieve the virgin’s crown. Rather than give in to his parents’ bullying to get married and give them grandchildren, Mark should stand firm and become a celibate.
In contrast, let us say Luke was not called to live a celibate life because after getting to know himself better he knows that he is called to be a husband and father, and after praying to God he is told that he ought to marry; but what if Luke’s parents are bullying him to become a celibate and are discouraging him from getting married? He should stand firm and say that God wishes him to marry.
Forcing Mark and Luke to go against what God has created them to do would be like forcing a toy breed to be a guard dog. Is it possible? With sufficient training, sure, but that toy breed would never be the best guard dog in the pack.
Remember: It is the Creator who determines what the created ought to be, not the other way around. And since God would not command something without making it possible, He will make us able to pursue whatever vocation He has given us. Therefore, if Mark gave in to the pressure to be married, he will be a mediocre spouse and parent instead of the superior celibate he could have been if he was faithful to his vocation. Likewise, if Luke gave in to the pressure to be a celibate, he will be a mediocre celibate instead of the superior spouse and parent he could have been if he was faithful to his vocation.
Lastly, about the opportunities God gives us to increase in virtue, the RCC teaches that every suffering is an opportunity to increase in virtue, therefore every suffering ought to be taken advantage of. Struggling with poverty? Use that as an opportunity to increase in the virtue of simplicity. Been the victim of a robbery? Increase in the virtue of detachment. Annoyed by a slow-moving line? Increase in the virtue of patience.
If you want to know what specific awards God wants you to achieve for all eternity, then study yourself and your life. And remember that these awards are for all eternity as opposed to earthly rewards which only last for a short time.
To summarize, the Catholic religion allows for different salvation goals for our souls. Choose your goal and follow the means.
|Lowest goal: saved but need to pass through the lowest level of purgatory and/or need to stay there for a long time, afterwards given the lowest rank in heaven||Belief in religion is not important. If baptized Catholic, go to confession before dying. If not baptized Catholic, or unable or unwilling to go to confession, choose to repent during the split-seconds before death.
Chance of succeeding: very low
|In-between goal: saved but need to pass through purgatory, afterwards given a middle rank in heaven||See above but do more; or see below, but do less.
Chance of succeeding: low or high depending how much is done
|Highest goal: saved, no need to pass through purgatory, given a high rank in heaven, given many awards for achieving high levels of virtue, awards for superiority in one’s vocation, etc.||Make sure you are always in a state of grace, pray often, go to confession and mass often, receive the Eucharist often, ask others (saints and holy people) to pray for you often, do daily devotions, do good works, practice the disciplines encouraged by the Church, etc.
Given that these means can only be done by Catholics, being Catholic is a must to achieve the highest salvation goal.
Chance of succeeding: high or very high depending on how much is done
As usual, the higher the goal, the more difficult the means for achieving it. Choose, do, and be rewarded for all eternity. What will your salvation goal be from 2017 onwards?