The “U” in Calvin’s TULIP acronym stands for “Unconditional Election.” This belief asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom He will save and it has absolutely nothing to do with personal virtue, merit, or even personal faith but simply based on His desire and mercy. Those he chooses will be given the gift of faith and receive salvation through Christ. Those not chosen receive the just wrath of God for their sins.
Arminians and the religious groups that trace their roots back to his teachings disagree with Calvin on this. They believe that “election” is conditional and based upon the individual’s free will choice to come to Christ through faith, and that everyone has this opportunity.
Calvinists can certainly find support for their view within Sacred Scripture. Some examples:
Acts 13:48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
Romans 8:29-30 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Ephesians 1:4-5 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will
Romans 9:15-16 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.
Of all of those passages the one from Romans 9 could be the most difficult. In context, Paul is speaking about the election of Israel as God’s chosen people. In verse 18 he even states that “So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.” This is a specific reference to Pharoah and how the book of Exodus tells us that God hardened Pharoah’s heart.
From the Catholic perspective this example points to the abundance of God’s mercy even when we don’t recognize our need for it. God is speaking to Moses in this passage right after the golden calf incident where Israel had abandoned God and fallen into idolatry. There was nothing they could to merit God’s forgiveness or mercy. Yet God forgives them.
What about the idea that God “hardens” Pharoah’s heart? Divine hardening is not seen as punishment for sin but the natural consequence for those who stubbornly resist God. God allows this discipline into their life for the purpose of conversion. I think one of the places we see this in the new Testament is in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The son’s heart was hardened in the sense that he stubbornly refused the love of his father for something he thought would be better. Learning just how “not better” his choice was led to his conversion.
Regarding the passages about “predestination,” from the Catholic perspective it is greatly important to remember here that we understand God to be outside of time and not bound to it (God is Omnipresent). The Catechism addresses this in paragraph 600 when it says that “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace.”
So as Catholics we would reject Calvin’s view of Unconditional Election, and especially his view of what we would call “double predestination” where God not only predestines the elect to heaven, but predestines everyone else to hell. We cannot deny that every human person has the possibility to be saved.
So who are the “elect” Scripture refers to? From the Catholic perspective God has predestined all to heaven, but some choose to reject this gift. Only in the sense that they have chosen to reject God’s invitation would we consider them to be “predestined” to hell. The elect are those who have freely chosen, with the help of God’s grace, to accept God’s offer of the gift of salvation.
There are some strong passages in Scripture to support the Catholic view. In 1 Timothy 2: 3-4 we read “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And 2 Peter 3:9 says “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Titus 2:11 says that “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.”
In one of the most well known passages of Scripture the apostle John writes “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). And Jesus tells us in John 12:32 that “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
Christ does indeed draw all people to himself, but we must come freely by our own choice. Love always involves a choice we must make.