Eternal Salvation is the Essential Work of the Church

COMMENTARY: Protecting people from spiritual death is the Church’s greatest responsibility.

Workshop of Jan van Eyck, “The Fountain of Life,” c. 1445
Workshop of Jan van Eyck, “The Fountain of Life,” c. 1445 (photo: Public Domain)

I’m grateful I’m not a bishop. On their shoulders, they carry the weight of thousands of souls, and, at times, that responsibility must feel crushing.

These are such times.

Over the past two months, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, our bishops have been forced to make decisions that affect the physical, as well as the spiritual lives of Catholics. Those decisions — to close churches and limit or cease the celebration of most sacraments — are decisions no bishop wants to make. They aren’t decisions I’d want to make. And I can only imagine how difficult this has been for them.

I say this because I want to make it clear from the start that I’m not criticizing a single bishop for their decisions regarding the public celebration of the sacraments. Again, their job is hard. I don’t envy them.

What does concern me, however, is the conversation that has surrounded some of these decisions.

More times than I can count, I’ve heard those who favor a complete sacramental shutdown argue that the Church has a responsibility to save people’s lives. Health and safety must come first, they’ve asserted. That is the Church’s most important job.

Yes … and no.

Yes, the Church has a responsibility to promote and protect the common good. That includes protecting the physical lives of Catholics and everyone with whom they’ve come in contact. It also includes attempting to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. The common good is not served if doctors and nurses can’t provide care to those in need.

At the same time, protecting people’s physical lives is not the Church’s most important job. Her most important job is protecting people’s spiritual lives. It’s protecting people from spiritual death. That is the Church’s greatest responsibility. And it’s a far greater responsibility than preventing mere physical death.


Life and Death

As I point out in my new book, Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, the Bible tells us there is life ... and then there’s life. That is, there is bios (biological life) and then there’s zoe.

Zoe is the word the Greek translators of the Old Testament used in Genesis 2:7:

“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [zoe]; and man became a living being.”

Unlike bios, zoe conveys much more than mere physical existence. God didn’t just breathe air into Adam; He breathed life into him. That life was spiritual life. It was eternal life. It was God’s own divine life. And it was more precious and fragile than physical life. For just as there is death … there is death. There is physical death, and there is spiritual death.

When Adam and Eve fell, part of their punishment was the loss of physical life. But that didn’t come right away. Their immediate and more grievous punishment was the loss of the divine life that dwelt within them. In the Garden, they died spiritually. Much later, they died physically.

Adam and Eve, however, didn’t just lose spiritual life for themselves; they lost it for the entire human race.

Thanks to our first parents, we’re all born with a figurative hole in our soul. Where God’s life should dwell, there‘s nothing. We’re missing the gift of life he created us to have.

We’re also born with a tendency to sin that makes it difficult to know, desire and choose the good. Because of that, we often choose our will over God’s, dimming the life of God in our soul and becoming more susceptible to greater sin. Even worse, when the choices are bad enough — when they involve grave matter, full knowledge and free consent — we kill God’s life in us entirely.

This is mortal sin. It is spiritual death. And it is a more real, more dangerous, and more permanent death than the death of our body.


Mediating Grace

We all have to die physically. There is no escaping it. But every single one of our bodies will eventually be resurrected. Physical life will be restored to all on the Last Day. This is what we proclaim at every Mass, when we recite the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Spiritual life, on the other hand, won’t be restored to all. If we die in a state of mortal sin, if we die without the life of God within us, there are no do-overs. Divine life — the life for which we were made — will not be ours. God, who is a loving Father, will give us every grace and every opportunity to choose him before death comes. But if we say no to those graces — persistently, resolutely and absolutely — our bodies will be resurrected not to life, but to death (Revelation 20:14-15).

This is what makes the Church’s work not just good, not just important, but life-saving. This is what makes it essential — far more essential than any other work done by any other institution or business.

Doctors and nurses, farmers and grocery clerks, delivery drivers and Instacart shoppers all do essential work to sustain our physical lives. But the Church does essential work to sustain our spiritual lives. She does the work that mediates God’s grace to us and ensures that we have the life we were meant to have — zoe — both now and forever.

The sacraments are the ordinary means by which this mediation takes place. Baptism imparts divine life to our soul. Confession restores it to us when we lose it through sin. The Eucharist strengthens divine life within us. Confirmation empowers us to live lives of missionary discipleship. Holy matrimony and holy orders equip us to serve the Body of Christ. And the anointing of the sick heals our souls (and sometimes our bodies), helping us take our final steps in the journey home.


Following the Path

Can God pour out his grace by other means? Yes. But he doesn’t name those means or encourage us to pursue them. There is only one path he lays out for us to himself and that path is paved by the sacraments.

What pursuing that path looks like right now, when we face real concerns for the safety of our priests and neighbors, is a different and more difficult question to answer. I’m definitely not suggesting we reopen all churches tomorrow and pack people into them. God expects his people to exercise the virtue of prudence and, for now, returning to sacramental life as we knew it before the pandemic would be anything but prudent. For the foreseeable future, the Church will need to be creative and adaptive as she seeks to carry out its mission in the world.

But, as the Church does, Christians must not fall into the trap of thinking of the sacraments or the Church as “inessential.” We also can’t make the mistake of valuing physical life more than spiritual life — not if we truly want to live, now and forever.

The first Christians ran toward death with eager hearts. They welcomed it for they knew it would lead them to life. We don’t have to run with equal speed to the grave, especially if doing so takes other unwitting souls with us. God doesn’t call everyone to martyrdom in an arena or hospital.

But, he does call us all to heaven. He calls us all to him. And we need the Catholic Church to help us answer that call. That is the Church’s job. Not to keep us physically safe, but to help us say yes to the graces of salvation so that we can live forever, in body and soul, as God made us to live.

And there is no job more important than that.

Scott Hahn, Ph.D., is the bestselling author of more than 40 books, including Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body. He is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center and holds the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University.