Friday, May 25, 2007

Retroactive Intercessory Prayer

I was involved in a discussion on another blog recently concerning whether acts of vicarious faith or retroactive intercessory prayer can result in someone's salvation after that person has passed away. I used as an example of vicarious faith the healing of the paralytic in Matthew and Mark in which Christ heals the paralytic based on the acts and faith of his friends. This interpretation was disputed, but I've come across it enough that I'll let that point stand on its own. Marcellino D'Ambrosio elaborates on that passage here. I've read it in numerous other places, Protestant and Catholic.

The other question also surprised me because it seemed so obvious that I wouldn't have considered otherwise. Someone had mentioned having known someone who was essentially a notorious sinner and that person had passed away. The concerned friend had asked whether prayers of intercession after the fact of this person's death could do any good. I answered that, yes, prayers of intercession can have an effect on those who have died in the past. On it's own, this statement might appear to support the notion that God can change what happened in the past. That isn't what I'm claiming.

One of the commenters suggested that we are bound to statements that "are philosophically and scientifically meaningful." I found that a ludicrous proposition, not because we should make meaningless statements, but because theological positions do not fall by necessity under the constraints of science (that is, empirical proofs). (I mentioned that such constraints would leave us theologically impoverished. Science cannot prove matters of the spirit.)

However, we do have to make reasonable arguments for a position, so here's mine.
My understanding derives from a few points of belief that, taken together, warrant this conclusion:

- God exists and can act outside of the temporal limitations of time.
- God has foreknowledge of our future contingent actions. (Summa Theologica PI, Q14, A13)
- Intercessory prayer merits* graces that can be granted to someone other than the one saying the prayer. (ST, Part IIb, Q83, A15).
- God can act based on knowledge of events that are, to us, contingent.
- God can move someone to repentance through grace based on a contingent event.
- Therefore, intercessory prayers on behalf of the dead can be beneficial for the deceased.

Here's the sequence.

1. Notorious sinner (NS) is on deathbed, feels remorse, is moved to faith (baptism of desire?), and makes an act of perfect contrition with no external indications.
2. Friend in the future learns of NS's death and prays that something moved NS to repent.

Can the prayer have any effect?

God sees future contingent acts of ours as if they were actual. Because He's outside of time, He sees all, even those actions that we do not know we are going to choose. Mind you, he doesn't choose them for us. He simply knows we're going to do them. To Him, there is no past, present, or future. Everything exists in an instant. He hears the friend's prayer. He grants the grace merited by that prayer to NS prior to dying. NS feels moved to remorse and repents.

What's important here is that NS must still make a decision for or against repentance and faith. God will not force a conversion. However, nothing prevents God from using contingent future actions in the present to move someone to repentance. If the person had chosen to reject God and has passed away, then certainly, no amount of intercessory prayer would help.

Thoughts from any of my theologian friends? Dominicans? Countrymen?

*I use the term "merit" in the Catholic sense rather than the Protestant sense. Grace is a gift, plain and simple. However, God has promised to respond to our requests and to our obedient actions. When Catholics say "merit," that is what we mean. We "merit" something for our faithful works solely because God has promised to reward us, not because of anything intrinsic in us or our actions.
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