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All or Many

by James Hitchcock
July 3 , 2007

“It doesn’t make one iota’s difference.”

Possibly that saying has become obsolete, but for a long time it was used to dismiss something as trivial and unimportant. In its origins, however, it was anything but. It actually tore the Church apart.

For two hundred years – roughly 300 to 500 – there were bitter theological quarrels over the identity of Jesus – was He only God, only man, or both? Numerous credal formulas were proposed in order to settle the question.

The heart of the issue at one point came down precisely to a single iota, the Greek equivalent of the letter “i”. Was Jesus “of the same nature” as the Father (“homoousios”) or merely “like” the Father “homoiousios”)? All sides in the debate saw that fundamental truths were at stake, since the followers of Jesus had to know whom they were following.

Recently the Holy See has said that in the Eucharistic Prayers at Mass the Latin phrase “pro multis” should be translated accurately, as “for many” rather than as ”for all,” as it now is in English and some other languages.  Inevitably some people dismiss this as hair-splitting, as they would have done with the ancient “iota” controversy. But again much more is at stake than a pedantic concern for literal accuracy.

St. Thomas Aquinas explained that the phrase “pro multis” actually means “for all,” which justifies the present translation. But there is a crucial distinction to be made. Jesus died for all (“pro omnibus”) in that He wanted all to be saved. His sacrifice is available to everyone. But He did not die for all in the sense that everyone will be saved. Human free will means that some people will refuse the gift of salvation that is offered to them.

Throughout the centuries probably most theologians thought that most people were not saved. The great St. Teresa of Avila, for example, saw an image of souls falling into hell like leaves off a tree in the autumn. Today we tend to think the reverse – God is mercy itself and almost everyone is saved. Adolf Hitler may be in hell, but he must be very lonely.

Of course it is a sin of presumption to speculate on how many people may be in hell, and who they are. Prudently, however, it is a good thing to consider damnation, especially our own, as a real possibility. If hell and damnation are real, we cannot make them go away by ignoring them or dismissing them as outmoded superstitions.

Thus the debate over how to translate “pro multis” has deep significance – translating it literally (“for many”) keeps us from falling into complacency, by reminding us that our salvation is not a sure thing.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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