Fr John Flader: Is there a tier system in heaven?

21 Jan 2009

By The Record

Question: I have always wondered whether the saints in heaven all experience the same reward, or whether some receive more than others. Has the Church taught anything on this?
Your question is not just an idle query about an academic matter. The
answer has a great bearing on how we live our lives here on earth. If
everyone will receive the same reward in heaven some people will be
tempted to ask: “Then what is the point of making an extra effort to do
more, if we are not going to be rewarded for it? We may as well do the
minimum and stay out of mortal sin so that we at least get to heaven,
where we will receive the same reward as everyone else.”
Has the Church said anything about this? It has. It has taught that
each person will be rewarded differently in heaven according to their
We can begin with Scripture, where we listen to Jesus himself, who said
regarding the final Judgment, “For the Son of man is to come with his
angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for
what he has done” (Mt 16:27). St Paul writes, “He who plants and he who
waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his
labour.” (1 Cor 3:8)
And speaking of the glory of the resurrected body, St Paul writes,
“There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and
another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is
it with the resurrection of the dead.” (2 Cor 15:41-42)
Ludwig Ott, in his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, lists as a
dogma of faith the following proposition: “The degree of perfection of
the beatific vision granted to the just is proportioned to each one’s
merits.”  The Council of Florence (1439), in the Decree pro Graecis
declared that the souls of the perfectly just “clearly behold the
Triune and One God as he is, but corresponding to the difference of
their merits, the one more perfectly than the other.”
In the 16th century, the Council of Trent, in the Sixth Session,
Chapter 16, taught that God will reward the good works of the justified
person, always remembering that these good works are carried out
through the grace and merits of Jesus Christ. The Council recalled the
promise of Jesus: “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a
cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he
shall not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42)
The Council went on to define as a dogma of faith: “If anyone says
that… the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace
of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does
not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life… and also an
increase of glory, let him be anathema.” (Can. 32)
It is clear from this that there are different degrees of glory or
perfection of the saints in heaven, depending on the merit of their
good works on earth. This is only to be expected. God would be unjust
if he did not reward some more than others, according to their works.
We all expect that Our Lady, St Joseph, the Apostles, the martyrs and
so many other “great saints” will be somehow “higher” in heaven than
the rest of us. It would not be right if it were otherwise. But does
this mean that some will be happier in heaven than others? Not
necessarily. In heaven all the saints are completely happy, overwhelmed
by the love and glory of the Blessed Trinity, and in addition the joy
of being in the company of Our Lady, the angels, all the other saints
and their loved ones.
An analogy that is often given is vessels of different sizes, all full
to the brim. By our good works we increase, as it were, the size of our
vessel so that our capacity for happiness increases. In heaven,
everyone’s vessel will be completely full, so that all will be
completely happy and no one will have a sense of lacking anything.
And there will be no envy of others’ happiness or glory since everyone will regard others’ good as their own.
So there is every reason to make an effort to do all the good we can on
earth, to store up as much treasure as we can in heaven (cf. Mt 5:19).
Then, in addition to the reward we receive here on earth, we will also
receive a greater reward in heaven.