A Florida parish is in some hot water because they accepted a request to offer a Mass for the repose of the soul of Osama bin Laden. Although praying for bin Laden’s salvation is clearly acceptable within Catholic theology, some do not believe it appropriate to pray for the salvation of this notorious mass murderer. One commenter even asks,
So Adolph Hitler is next? Why not masses for Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, too?
Well, actually, there would be nothing theologically wrong with that either. We do not want anyone to go to hell, not even our worst enemy.
Some fear that such an attitude reflects a belief in universal salvation – that all men and women (and even demons!) will eventually be saved. Known also as Apocatastasis, the doctrine of universal salvation is most associated with the Church Father Origen (although St. Gregory of Nyssa also seemed to accept this doctrine), and has been condemned by the Church. In recent times, Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar seemed to flirt with this doctrine as well, although his position is a bit more nuanced than a simple acceptance of the salvation of all people (von Balthasar also explicitly acknowledged the eternal damnation of the devil).
However, praying for the salvation of the worst that the human race has produced – Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden – does not necessarily imply a belief in the salvation of all. There is a difference between hoping for the salvation of each person and believing in the salvation of all persons. Let me use an analogy that I’ve used here before.
My favorite baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, is supposed to be good this year (and so far they are playing well). Before every game, I hope that they win. However, never would I believe that they could win all 162 games, as I know that is a hope for something that is simply not possible. The reality is that they will lose some games no matter how good they are.
The problem with believing in universal salvation is that it effectively negates human freedom. If all men are saved, then in truth there is no human element in the process of salvation, something which goes against Catholic teaching. To return to my analogy, if the Reds did somehow win all 162 games, I (along with everyone else) would suspect that something had been rigged. Likewise, if all men are saved, I would have to suspect that man is not truly free – his salvation is predetermined regardless of the choices he makes. And freedom is a necessary component of love; without freedom, we are simply slaves of a benevolent master, not children of a loving father.
So we can (and should) hope that Osama bin Laden is saved, as well as Hitler, Stalin or any other person who has committed terrible public sins (as well as ourselves, who commit terrible private sins). But that does not mean that we believe that all men are saved, for we know that God as our loving father respects our human freedom too much to force us even into something as blessed as eternal salvation.