Hell, Heaven, and Progressive Catholics

With another presidential election looming, it won’t be long before many self-described progressive Catholics start issuing countless statements about numerous policy issues. Though many such Catholics sit rather loosely with Catholic teaching on questions like life and marriage, their “relaxed” position on such issues is belied by their stridency on, for instance, economic matters. Woe betide he who suggests welfare cuts can sometimes be a legitimate policy option, for thou art anathema.

This absolutizing of what the Church teaches on what are usually prudential-judgment issues is often traced to the political theologies that emerged in 1960s West Germany, before (to everyone’s detriment) being exported to Latin America.

But as Pope Benedict XVI notes in part two of his Jesus of Nazareth, these theologies’ influence has faded in the Catholic world. Nevertheless, various progressive Catholics continue to press what is often a hyper-politicized understanding of the gospel. That suggests the roots of the problem may lie elsewhere.

Perhaps it has something to do with the eternal quest for “relevance” that’s often fuelled by living in hothouses like Washington, D.C. In some cases, it might be ambitions of a political appointment. While such factors shouldn’t be discounted, deeper theological influences may be at work. Though it’s impolitic to say so, one such pressure may be the effective denial of the reality of hell that has become part of much contemporary Christian life.

Hell is not a comfortable subject. The idea that we can, by virtue of one or more of our free choices, potentially separate ourselves eternally from God’s love is frightening.

But the reality of hell and that it will be populated by those who fail to choose to repent of such choices (we don’t know the identity or number of such people, and pray and hope we won’t  be among them) is firmly attested to by Scripture and Tradition. St. Augustine’s City of God devotes several chapters to affirming these truths. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers specifically to those who die in a state of mortal sin enduring “eternal separation from God.”

Moreover, from the standpoint of reason, hell is a logical side effect of God’s willingness to let us choose whether or not to live in His Truth.

God doesn’t will that anyone goes to hell. Hell is, as the philosopher John Finnis writes, “a self-made judgment, the inherent outcome of a sin by which one refuses to remain and grow in friendship with God.”

As a reality, however, hell has disappeared from some Christians’ horizons. This partly owes something to those biblical scholars who have reduced the gospels to “symbols” and “stories,” the “real” meaning of which — so they tell us — actually contradicts what the Church has always understood them to mean.

In this self-referential world, hell is simply “threat discourse” (as Karl Rahner called it) and God a cosmic bluffer — which would, Finnis observes, imply Jesus Christ is a liar.

Another, more mundane reason for hell’s disappearance is that we don’t really want to be accountable for our sins. Hence we rationalize them away through consequentialist illusions (a choice to kill an innocent life might be justified on the basis of an impossible calculation of known and unknown consequences), or delude ourselves that our fundamental option for Christ somehow obviates those post-conversion sins that render our faith, as St. James says, “dead.”

Among the many problems flowing from this is that once hell disappears as a real possibility, then heaven doesn’t mean so much anymore — since everyone, whatever they choose, is presumably going there.

The desire for heaven, however, can’t be eradicated from human existence. As beings made for an eternal destiny, it’s hardwired into us. Hence, it ends up getting transmuted into what Benedict calls “ideologies of progress.”

In Spe Salvi (perhaps his best encyclical thus far), Pope Benedict illustrates how the disappearance of the hope of heaven meant people started putting their faith in science to create a totally new world: “a kingdom of man” rather than the kingdom of heaven. This, Benedict argues, explains much of the modern world’s dysfunctionality.

When it comes to Catholics, hell’s disappearance and the ensuing trivialization of the hope of heaven has resulted in some effectively redefining their faith so that it becomes almost exclusively focused on various political agendas with utopian flavors (“end poverty forever”). It’s especially characteristic of those religious orders whose numbers have collapsed over the past 40 years.

Does this mean all progressive Catholics quietly deny hell? Not at all. But it’s certainly worth asking some of them whether their language and actions reflect a de facto embrace of such reasoning — one that subsequently reduces Christ to a rather secular-minded 20th-century progressivist and the Catholic Faith to mere activism.

Avoiding such errors, however, doesn’t mean Catholics should withdraw into an apolitical ghetto. Part of the Christian way involves doing good and avoiding evil, including through politics — but without imagining human salvation can be realized there.

More generally, most Catholics aren’t called to a life of activism (left or right). As part of God’s design, we all have different vocations, the faithful fulfilling of which mysteriously helps, as Vatican II taught, “to prepare the material [materiam] of the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, eternal life does in fact somehow begin now. Our good works today — what Vatican II called “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise [industriae],” most notably “human dignity [humanae dignitatis], brotherhood [communionis fraternae] and freedom [libertatis]” — will be taken up, cleansed of sin, and perfected when Christ returns.

None of this makes sense, however, without accepting Catholic teaching about the hope of heaven and hence the alternative of effectively choosing hell. Herein lies the gospel’s ultimate relevance. Embracing it is the path to true freedom, not to mention eternal life.

(This article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine. © 2011  Samuel Gregg)

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (University Press of America, 2001) and On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society and Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —
www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)
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