On the occasion of our seventh meeting, eight brave souls disregarded nasty weather in order to obtain the good of intellectual fellowship. The facilitator argued that Catholics can indeed enjoy assurance of personal salvation. Others took umbrage at this affirmation.
A lively discussion ensued. We considered the question of whether the Council of Trent (cf., Session VI, "On Justification") ruled out assurance of personal salvation absolutely, or whether the Council merely ruled that, apart from a special revelation, it is impossible to have the absolute assurance of faith ("in which there can be no possibility of error") that one is in a state of grace or has been predestined to eternal salvation. We also considered the question of whether an assurance (certainty) that is not thus absolute is even deserving of the name.
It was suggested that there is indeed an authentic kind of assurance/certainty that is distinct from indubitable knowledge and that the propositions promulgated at Trent with respect to assurance were carefully qualified such that the Council did not reject assurance of salvation per se.
The facilitator went on to argue that (1) St. Thomas Aquinas provides us with a biblically and theologically compelling account of how one may enjoy certainty with respect to the good of eternal life, and (2) that Aquinas' teaching on this matter is completely consistent with Trent.
In his treatise on the theological virtue of hope (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 17, 18, "Of Hope"; cf., q. 18, a. 4), Aquinas clearly affirms that "the hope of the wayfarer [for the good of eternal life] is certain." He does say, in language echoed by Trent, that one cannot know (with indubitable knowledge) that he is either in a state of grace or among those predestined to glory, that we should fear the possibility of falling away from God, and that many a hopeful wayfarer does indeed fall away. He goes on to argue, however, that certain kinds of fear are not intrinsically evil, that the fear of losing God's friendship is in fact a good kind of fear, and that this fear is completely consistent with the assurance of hope (cf., ST, II-II, q. 19, "Of Fear").
Hope, according to Aquinas, proceeds from faith in the mercy and omnipotence of God, while fear is based upon an awareness of the possibility that we, being endowed with free will, might reject God's friendship. However, the certainty of hope is not opposed to fear, but to despair. Therefore, unless we despair of our own salvation (and to do so is a mortal sin), we can and should live in hope. In hope, we enjoy the assurance that we will receive all the help necessary to attain final salvation.
Thus, hope does not only look to the end to be obtained, in which case it would be indistinguishable from fortitude, but also to the divine help (e.g., the sacraments) by which we are enabled to obtain that end. In other words, there is both an "immediate" as well as a "teleological" aspect to hope. Therefore we are to rejoice in the assurance of eternal life as a work that God has already begun in us and which he will bring to completion upon the Day of Judgment (Philippians 1.6; 2 Timothy 1.12).