Intercession, the practice of praying and requesting favors from God on another’s behalf, is an age-old practice in the Catholic Church, one that is esteemed as an act of great charity. This tradition can be observed as far back as the time of Abraham, who by interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, was able to convince God to spare the cities, if He could find there ten righteous people, rather than the initial requirement of fifty righteous (Gen. 18: 23-33). Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there are similar examples of individuals who make requests of God, and are given what they ask for. If it worked in ancient times, then there is no reason for it not to work now; God does not change His ways, and will listen to us as He listened to our fathers in the Faith.
However, it is not uncommon for skeptical individuals to question this practice from a philosophical perspective. God is unchangeable, many will say, so it is useless to attempt to change His mind. If He has eternally willed that some event should or should not occur, then it will happen regardless of what we ask for, or what we do in order to avert or facilitate it.
To be sure, God is essentially immutable, and thus His mind and will do not change. However, it does not follow from this truth that the practice of intercession is something useless or incapable of influencing the outcome of a given series of events. In order to see how intercession and Divine foreknowledge and immutability are compatible, one must examine the Catholic doctrines of predestination and merit.
Within the Catholic tradition on the doctrine of predestination, there is a great deal of theological diversity, regarding differing emphases on free will or divine pre-election. The one thing that all Catholic theologians do affirm, however, is that God knows from all eternity what will happen in the course of human history, though these events themselves are determined by both human freedom, and the grace with which individuals may or may not cooperate. This is because God is outside of time, dwelling in what is often termed the “eternal present”. All things, past, present, and future, appear as one to Him, and He sees all that has occurred, is occurring, and will occur, though without imposing any restriction on human free will. God always knows what we will do, yet never coerces us to do it.
In consequence of God’s eternal vision and foreknowledge, He also foresees the merits of all human beings, and the prayers that each individual will offer up throughout the course of his or her life. Intercessory prayer and merit are two doctrines very closely associated, as it is upon merit that the idea of intercession is largely based. For Catholic theology, the concept of congruous merit, or merit according to fittingness, is particularly important in this regard. One merits something congruously from God in prayer by living a good Christian life, and being closely conformed to His will. It is fitting for God to grant the requests of those who love Him, just as it is fitting for friends to do favors for one another. Of course, God’s knowledge also far surpasses ours, and as a good friend often must wait until the right time to grant their friend’s requests, so God will often wait until the right time to grant ours, or perhaps not grant them at all, if doing so would be somehow detrimental to us or to those for whom we pray.
Thus, it is in light of these doctrines that one sees the value and importance of intercession. God, from all eternity, foresees our merits and prayers, and thus eternally decides whether or not it would be fitting and beneficial to grant them. Though God alone knows how He will answer our prayers, it is up to us to make them, both because it is an act of charity towards our neighbor, and because it is often in light of them that God will intervene in history, sometimes in very miraculous and unexpected ways. This ability to be an instrument for good in the world through conversation with God is a great gift and privilege, and should not be ignored.