Monday, May 01, 2006

The Church, right or wrong

I came across this article from the May 2003 First Things, which provides an excellent example of the kind of thinking that drove ex-Catholics, like me, to become ex-Catholics. Avery Cardinal Dulles (why does their first name come before their title? We don't say "George President Bush", or "Norman General Schwartzkopf"?) writes about the see-saw positions that the Church has taken over the last century regarding the number of people that we can assume are going to Hell:

Sometimes the complaint is heard that no one preaches about hell any longer. The subject of hell, if not attractive, is at least fascinating, as any reader of Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost can testify. Equally fascinating, and decidedly more pressing, is the question of how many of us may be expected to go there when we die.

As we know from the Gospels, Jesus spoke many times about hell. Throughout his preaching, he holds forth two and only two final possibilities for human existence: the one being everlasting happiness in the presence of God, the other everlasting torment in the absence of God. He describes the fate of the damned under a great variety of metaphors: everlasting fire, outer darkness, tormenting thirst, a gnawing worm, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.


He goes on with a detailed exposition of the evolution of the Church's position on damnation through the ages, pointing out that the majority position wasn't very sanguine for the chances of the average person:

The relative numbers of the elect and the damned are not treated in any Church documents, but have been a subject of discussion among theologians. Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus, Basil, and Cyril of Jerusalem are typical in interpreting passages such as Matthew 22:14 as meaning that the majority will be consigned to hell. St. John Chrysostom, an outstanding doctor of the Eastern tradition, was particularly pessimistic: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.”

Augustine may be taken as representative of the Western Fathers. In his controversy with the Donatist Cresconius, Augustine draws upon Matthew and the Book of Revelation to prove that the number of the elect is large, but he grants that their number is exceeded by that of the lost. In Book 21 of his City of God he rebuts first the idea that all human beings are saved, then that all the baptized are saved, then that all baptized Catholics are saved, and finally that all baptized Catholics who persevere in the faith are saved. He seems to limit salvation to baptized believers who refrain from serious sin or who, after sinning, repent and are reconciled with God.


Nothing surprising here for anyone who was raised in the church pre Vatican II. But here is the kicker, where Dulles sets up the argument for a more optimistic view of salvation that is, amazingly, totally consistent with past Church teaching:

Several studies published by Catholics early in the twentieth century concluded that there was a virtual consensus among the Fathers of the Church and the Catholic theologians of later ages to the effect that the majority of humankind go to eternal punishment in hell. Even if this consensus be granted, however, it is not binding, because the theologians did not claim that their opinion was revealed, or that to take the opposite view was heretical. Nor is the opinion that most people attain salvation contradicted by authoritative Church teaching.


Did you catch that? That is what we call, in legal parlance, a loophole. If Augustine or Aquinas or the various Popes that have spoken on salvation throughout the centuries weren't promulgating authoritative Church teaching, then why were they saying anything? Isn't that their job as authorities, to be authoritative? Would that we could all use this loophole in our jobs. "Yes, I did incorrectly state that this lawsuit was a slam-dunk, but I wasn't making an authoritative legal statement". "Yes, I did say, incorrectly, that your genitals had to be amputated, but I wasn't making an authoritative medical statement".

The Church has authority so that what it says can be taken as authoritative teaching. That's what authority means. When you are an official of the Church, whatever you say is authoritative because you are an authority. If it isn't authoritative, then you aren't authoritative. There is no value in authority except to make authoritative decisions.

The most sophisticated theological argument against the conviction that some human beings in fact go to hell has been proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” He rejects the ideas that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned souls and demons will be reconciled with God. He also avoids asserting as a fact that everyone will be saved. But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die. He concedes, however, that the opposite is also possible. Since we are able to resist the grace of God, none of us is safe. We must therefore leave the question speculatively open, thinking primarily of the danger in which we ourselves stand.

At one point in his book Balthasar incorporates a long quotation from Edith Stein, now Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who defends a position very like Balthasar’s. Since God’s all-merciful love, she says, descends upon everyone, it is probable that this love produces transforming effects in their lives. To the extent that people open themselves to that love, they enter into the realm of redemption. On this ground Stein finds it possible to hope that God’s omnipotent love finds ways of, so to speak, outwitting human resistance. Balthasar says that he agrees with Stein.

This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive.


So what we're being told is that the truth could lie somewhere between almost everyone goes to hell, and almost noone goes to hell. As far as authoritative Church teaching can say, at least.

So why do so many people listen to these guys?

The spin continues:

The conviction of earlier theologians that relatively few are saved rests, I suspect, partly on the assumption that faith in Christ, baptism, and adherence to the Church are necessary conditions for salvation. The first two of these conditions are clearly set forth in the New Testament, and the third has been taught by many saints, councils, popes, and theologians. But these conditions can be interpreted more broadly than one might suspect. In recent centuries it has become common to speak of implicit faith, baptism “by desire,” and membership in the “soul” of the Church, or membership in voto (“by desire”). Vatican II declares that all people, even those who have never heard of Christ, receive enough grace to make their salvation possible.


This kind of spin, this parsing of meaning, would put Bill Clinton to shame.

"You shall construct the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free."

20 Comments:

Blogger Deep Furrows said...

"You shall construct the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free."
hmm. I fail to see how the number of the elect is a matter of salvific faith. That is, some Christians have held to a literal 144,000 saved while others have drawn up lists of folks that in their opinion must be damned.

The number of the damned is a matter of speculation and not an article of faith. After all, if 99% of folks are saved and I'm not, that's too bad for me.

If you want to hear about hell, come listen to the pastor at my parish some time. Hell plays a secondary role since his main focus is the grace of God in Christ and our submission to God's saving will.

May 01, 2006 6:48 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The concept that some of us will end up roasting for eternity is certainly harmful for some overly credulous or inexperienced believers, but the popularity of the subject seems readily explainable.

In the first place, rather few people are firmly convinced that they're damned, so it's a voyeuristic and vicarious thrill to learn about the suffering that awaits wicked "others" - somewhat like good, snarky gossip about people you don't like.

It's also similar to the experience that some people get from viewing horror movies.

Another simple reason is that eternal damnation is more interesting than many other sermon topics, and if you're attending church more out of duty than passion, every non-dull moment helps.

The threat of Hell can perform a positive function, by steeling people's resolve to do what they regard as right, in the face of temptation, peer pressure, or other difficulty.
It's the ultimate "my Dad would kill me if I did..."

May 01, 2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The concept that some of us will end up roasting for eternity is certainly harmful for some overly credulous or inexperienced believers,

There are non-credulous believers? And how do you become an experienced believer? It's not like you ever get feedback from the things believed in.

In the first place, rather few people are firmly convinced that they're damned,

You didn't grow up Catholic.

The threat of Hell can perform a positive function, by steeling people's resolve to do what they regard as right, in the face of temptation, peer pressure, or other difficulty.

It can't work if you don't believe it.

And thank you for confirming my view that religion and theater serve similar purposes.

May 01, 2006 9:00 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Fred,

Thanks for the invite, but I left more behind than just the Catholic church. I left Christianity, as well as theism, behind as well.

But you're missing my point. It's not that I wanted to hear ablut hell, or missed hearing about hell when I left the church. When I was in the Church I wanted to hear what was true, based on the assumption that the Church spoke for, and with the authority of, God. If they don't know what they're talking about, or are just speculating, then I don't expect to be told something with the air of certainty. As a Catholic, I've never heard a priest say "I'm just speculating here", or "take this with a grain of salt".

The assumption about the number of damned affects how people experience their faith. If the assumption is that almost everyone is hellbound, then one's faith will strike one with debilitating fear and a profound sense of pessimism & gloom. Just think about the millions of people who lived lives of torment because of the idle speculations of their church leaders. It's not something that you answer later with, "sorry, no need to get unusually worried, none of what you've been told in the past was for the record".

May 01, 2006 9:13 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

There are non-credulous believers?

There are believers who don't take their religious leaders' every utterance as gospel truth.

And how do you become an experienced believer?

You get older.

It's not like you ever get feedback from the things believed in.

Ah...
Not to be rude, but all you're really saying is that you never got any feedback.

Others may have different experiences.

[Damnation] can't work if you don't believe it.

All you have to believe is that it might be a possibility, for it to have a mild deterring effect.
The concept is also a reminder of the ugliness of sin, which is all that some people need.

And thank you for confirming my view that religion and theater serve similar purposes.

Well of course they can, although my sense is that few find them directly interchangeable.

I happen to find quite a bit of support for my religious beliefs in dramatic productions, irrespective of the attitudes of those producing the material, but I'd be the last to claim that I'm a typical anything.

May 01, 2006 10:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Sorry, Oroborous, I'm just being a wise-ass. I've never gotten any sense of being talked to by God in a way that I couldn't chalk up to my own reflections.

All you have to believe is that it might be a possibility, for it to have a mild deterring effect.
The concept is also a reminder of the ugliness of sin, which is all that some people need.


But haven't we covered this in The Story of the Moral/Divine Command Theory? It doesn't help when people are able to rationalize their behavir to themselves. So the people who will fear damnation are the people who already have a sense of what is right and wrong and are able to feel guilt for the wrong things that they do.

I was staying at a hotel in Universal City, Ca once, and looking out over the studio lots, with their hangar-like sound stages. Across the street was a domed church. I was struck by the similarity of the purposes for these structures. Inside of these buildings, people are transported to different times and places. They are put into a state of mind for suspending their disbelief, and accepting the reality of scripted narratives.

No wonder the Puritans forbade the theatre. It was their competition.

May 01, 2006 11:39 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's not why I left the church, but it's a very good reason. Completely agree.

Duck's post reminds me of my favorite, all purposes quotation, which should be invoked by people in general, more especially by religionists and most especially by Catholics. It's from Oliver Cromwell, and I may not have it word perfect:

'Gentlemen, I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think you may be wrong.'

May 01, 2006 2:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's not why I left the church, but it's a very good reason. Completely agree.

Duck's post reminds me of my favorite, all purposes quotation, which should be invoked by people in general, more especially by religionists and most especially by Catholics. It's from Oliver Cromwell, and I may not have it word perfect:

'Gentlemen, I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think you may be wrong.'

May 01, 2006 2:59 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Oro's notion is one you hear a lot these days: "Oh, nobody believes in Hell any more! How credulous can you get?"

Well ok, but what happened to God-given morality, and the baddies getting their comeuppance?

It's a bit like Christians saying all that Adam and Eve and Original Sin stuff is a metaphor. Well fine, but it rather renders the whole crucifixion thing a bit pointless.

Admittedly, I don't get to many masses these days, but when I do even the Catholics are all touchy-feely God as self-help guru.

I can only put it down to the influence of Coca-Cola ads on popular religion.

I like my priests breathing fire and brimstone.

For those ignoramuses amongst you who elsewhere dismiss the mighty Joyce, I bid you read chapter 3 of A Portrait of the Artist, in which a preacher so puts the fear of hellfire into our hero that he suffers a mental meltdown.

In particular, check out his thoughts on eternity:

Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

May 02, 2006 1:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

In as clear a contrast between elevated, refined, educated sensibilities, and the merely plebian, you could scarcely ask for a better example than Brit and I.

He with his Joyce, I with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, from their song Hell:

In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay

People listen attentively
I mean about future calamity
I used to think the idea was obsolete
Until I heard the old man stamping his feet.

This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.

Beauty, talent, fame, money, refinement
Top skill and brain
But all the things you try to hide
Will be revealed on the other side.

Now the d and the a and the m
And the n and the a
And the t and the i-o-n
Lose your face, lose your name
Then get fitted for a suit of flame



When I read Augustine asserted [salvation is limited] to baptized believers who refrain from serious sin or who, after sinning, repent and are reconciled with God. something rang a bell.

It took a couple re-reads to figure out which one. Augustine was channeling Steve Martin:

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. "Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?" First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, "Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, 'You.. have never paid taxes'?" Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: "I forgot!" How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don't say "I forgot"?

Clearly this is a metaphor with the IRS as God, and the not-taxpayer as a repenting wayward sinner. I forgot. I repent.

Talk about loopholes. One would think that might put a gaping hole in the notion that religion is a pre-requisite for morality.


Self referential moment. Like Duck, I was once a believer: choir & altar boy, confirmation, the whole nine yards. It was during one particular confirmation class where the whole thing started to come unglued, and the solvent was this:

The conviction of earlier theologians that relatively few are saved rests, I suspect, partly on the assumption that faith in Christ, baptism, and adherence to the Church are necessary conditions for salvation.

On being told this, my hand shot up: "You mean salvation is a matter of luck?"

I'm not sure whether the priest had heard this question before, but if he had, from his reaction, it didn't appear he had heard it from a 12-yr old boy.

I don't recall the exact answer, but I do recall concluding that there was either a lot of Oz stuff going on, or God had the capricious moral mien of a two-yr old.

Perhaps they should be more careful about what they teach in confirmation classes.

May 02, 2006 4:54 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I was confirmed at age 7, the lower limit of the age of comprehension having been lowered because the Bishop of Nashville couldn't make it to Chattanooga oftener than about once in five years.

Heck -- or, Hell! -- it was a three-hour drive. What's a bishop supposed to be doing anyway, saving souls?

Anyhow, though the idea was only dimly formed in the mind of a 7-year-old, the obvious conclusion was that the Church did not take seriously anything that it said. So why should I?

++++

I read 'Portrait' when I was 16. I guess I must have read Chapter 3. I confess it made not the slightest impression upon me. The only thing I remember from that or any other book of Joyce is that 'Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.'

May 02, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Many people believe in Hell, as well they ought.

However, it's harmful, psychologically and socially, for both individuals and cultures, to fixate on eternal torment, and to be overconcerned about avoiding it.
Innocents and the young tend to go overboard in zealotry.

Hell isn't that easy to get into.
It's not enough to be bad, you also have to actively reject God.

Nicking a pack of gum or having sex before marriage ain't nearly enough.
Not believing in The Big Spook won't do it either.

To continue in an afterlife vein, in reference to another thread, there is sex in Heaven, and conflict too.
They're just not exactly the same as they are in the carnal world.

It's not all a Vicar's tea party, although there is some of that, if you like that sort of thing.

Passion is a constant, and outside of the mortal sphere it burns with an intensity that would destroy mere human minds.

May 02, 2006 12:42 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

To Every Man an Answer begs to differ.

I have been reading Hugh Thomas' history of the Spanish discovery of America. Last night there was the story of the Puerto Rican Indian chief who had the Gospel explained to him. He was told that if he accepted God, he would be left alive, as a subordinate chief to administer his people for the Spaniards, after which there was the hope of heaven.

If not, he would be burned alive.

He did not reflect long. If heaven had Spaniards in it, he said, he would prefer to be burned.

So he was.

You can make a Hell on Earth, and it's really easy.

May 02, 2006 4:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It's not enough to be bad, you also have to actively reject God.

So actively rejecting God is worse than being bad to one's fellow humans?

Presumably, then, actively accepting God is the sine qua non, and anything we do here is irrelevant?

For such a Supreme Being, God seems to have more than a whiff of the small man syndrome about him.

May 02, 2006 5:08 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Hell is being separated from the presence of God, in the afterlife.

Therefore, going to Hell or not is necessarily deicentric.
It's also largely a choice, not a sentence.

However, the afterlife isn't binary; the possibilities aren't only Heaven/Hell.
It's as varied as life is here on Earth.

What we do matters, what we intend matters, what we are capable of matters, and what was done to us matters.

May 02, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not to God, man! How many times do we have to tell you, you cannot be saved by works?

May 02, 2006 9:52 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

;-) That is indeed the majority position of mainstream Christian thought.

I happen to know that it's not strictly true, (although it is slightly true, in an absolute sense), but my voice carries no significant weight.

It's like trying to tell your kids about the mistakes you've made in your own life - hopefully it allows them to recognize and recover faster, but they're going to repeat some of those same mistakes anyhow.

Assuming that they paid any attention in the first place.

May 03, 2006 10:43 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It says a lot about religion that you cannot be rewarded just for being good.

May 03, 2006 2:16 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Here's a comment that describes much of my position on an afterlife, from our January discussion on Plato:

Here's another take on Platonic forms that I'm sure you believers have not considered. As was stated, the form of the triangle is the perfect, ideal representation of a triangle. It is a singular. The multiplicity of triangles that we actually see contain imperfections or additional qualities, like green-ness, that make them just shadows of the real thing. One form, many representations. One essence, multiple existences.

So if the human person is the imperfect shadow of the perfect form of human-ness, the human soul, then it is only in this imperfectness, these added bits of extraneous physical baggage that we are unique from each other.

The soul is a singular form. There is no Peter soul, or Brit soul, or Duck soul. There is only the singular form in which we participate. Brit's love of cricket, or my distaste for olives, or Peter's love of wine and Chesterton are just imperfect agglomerations of physical encrustation, like barnacles on a ship, that won't make it to the land of Eternal Forms. Yet when believers posit the existence of an afterlife, they aren't thinking of the eternal existence of the one perfect human form. They're thinking of their own bastardized, dog-eared, coffee-stained, worn and patched, customized and accessorized, comfortable old shoe of a soul, which contains all the quirks and features of their own personal identity. Sorry Peter, but all that baggage stays here in the realm of the fallen.


I find it impossible to believe that a purely spiritualized essence of one's personality can survive the death of one's body. Everything that defines us as a unique person is totally contingent upon our physical manifestations as creatures. Indeed, our personalities aren't even constants in this context, as drugs or brain injuries can significantly alter our own experience of me-ness. You might even say that we're not the same person at 50 that we were at 5. So what makes us think that our identities can survive the total annihilation of our bodies and the physical world in which our bodies construct our sense of self?

Oro, one question. I can accept how a believer in an orthodox faith can accept theological principles, as he relies on the authority of the traditions of his faith. But how does the unorthodox believer, like yourself, who readily rejects certain established articles of faith of his religion, gain such certainty in his beliefs? Are you relying on reason alone, or are you privy to some form of revelation?

Just curious.

May 03, 2006 2:55 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I find it impossible to believe that a purely spiritualized essence of one's personality can survive the death of one's body. Everything that defines us as a unique person is totally contingent upon our physical manifestations as creatures.

Babies are born with personalities, and siblings, of the same flesh and raised in the same environment, can turn out to be radically different.

Further, identical twins separated at birth, and raised in very different circumstances and surroundings, can become eerily similar adults, down to choice of clothing, careers, and spouses with the same name.

While genes and environment clearly affect development, they aren't the whole story.
Humans are not clean slates.

Nor are most animals, for that matter.

May 05, 2006 2:11 PM  

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