The vagaries of conservative Catholic opinion are hard to chart. The other day, I remarked that I didn’t know what the big deal was about Fr. Barron’s views on hell (since then people have clarified for me that I was looking in the wrong place and the controversial remarks are elsewhere–of which more anon).
Anyway, in the video I posted, part of what Fr. Barron noted was the same point that von Balthasar did: that we don’t have any idea who–or if–anybody is in hell. A reader responded:
It’s ridiculous to say that we don’t know if anyone is in hell. All of the saints, the apparitions and let’s not forget JESUS say that there are people in hell. Why would Jesus warn and warn and say flat out that the way is narrow and FEW PEOPLE FIND IT??? It’s things like this that make people indifferent and apathetic, because people like Fr. Barron and you make them think that there isn’t any reason not to be. Jesus knows human nature better than you. And He thought it was for the best to warn and warn and warn people about hell. Not act like it was all gonna be ok. If you want to imitate Jesus you should talk about the great danger of hell A LOT like he did. He was the one who warned about hell the most and you should follow his lead.
Saying “we do not know if anyone is in hell” is not the same as saying “it’s all gonna be okay”. It amazes me the incredibly short memories there are in cyberspace. Some readers may cast their minds waaaaaaaaay back to slightly over a month ago when I was reiterating one of the countless warnings I had given about the dangers of hell. Some folks may recall my refusal to vote for candidates who advocate sin worthy of the everlasting fires of hell, such as abortion, euthanasia, torture, and unjust war. When I did that, I was told (countless times) by “faithful conservative Catholics”[TM] that I was a fussy perfectionist and that advocacy of mortal sin–-when done by a Republican–-was a minor peccadillo and that people like me were self-regarding narcissists and even spiritual masturbators for declining to support GOP candidates who advocate grave intrinsic evil any more than Democrats who do so. Indeed, I was told I had a moral *obligation* to support the Right Sort of people when they are advocating mortal sin. A month ago, a mere month ago, this was the very definition of “Faithful Conservative” Catholic[TM] and I was roundly condemned for failing to sign off on it.
Now, suddenly, we’re worried about hell and Fr. Barron is taking hell too lightly while Faithful Conservative[TM} Catholics are bravely holding the line?
Well, okay. But here's the thing: It's perfectly possible to warn against the extremely real possibility that one could choose Hell (because one *can* choose Hell) and yet remain agnostic about whether anyone has done so (for the very good reason that we have no idea if anyone has done so). Can we *guess* that some have chosen Hell? Sure. And my guess plus five bucks will get you a cup of coffee. What do I know? What do you know? Nothing. And despite my reader's claim, the reality is that the Church has never definitively stated that there is anybody in Hell. That's why von Balthasar could write as he did and not receive ecclesiastical censure.
Von Balthasar's point is not "We know everybody will be saved". It is "We don't know anything". The New Testament presents us with two strains of thought in tension (a very typical Catholic habit). It tells us Jesus came to save "all" ("I will draw all men to me") and it warns of the possibility of damnation. No attempt is made to reconcile these strains of revelation just as no attempt is made to reconcile "God is one" with "Jesus is the Son of God" or "God is absolutely sovereign" with "We have free will". It falls to the Church to hold such points of revelation in tension and the Church has always held them both. Von B's point is that we are under judgment, not over it, and we simply do not know the end of the story. We can make guesses, but we can't *know*. So we are left with neither presumption (that all will be saved), nor with despair (that most, including me and my loved ones) will be damned. Both presumption and despair are sins: the twin enemies of hope.
It is significant that hope is the subject of the encyclical Fr. Barron is commenting on. Here is what Benedict writes that is the subject of Fr. Barron's commentary:
45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.
46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).
The highlighted part is the bone of contention. Fr. Barron remarks concerning Ralph Martin’s recent book on the matter, Will Many Be Saved?:
Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of who or how many will be saved, but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn’t to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as “remarks” that require “clarification” is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI’s teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s position – affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there – is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.
I’m not so convinced that the Pope has “declared” that we oughtn’t to hold that Hell is densely populated. “We may suppose” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “we declare, pronounce, and define”. But certainly it *does* seem to me that Benedict is putting squarely in the center of the table a certain incredulity at the idea that most will be damned and most definitely lending aid and comfort to Fr. Barron’s basic assumption that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up there. I don’t think–and I suspect Fr. Barron doesn’t think either–that Dr. Martin is really in the same moral category as a theologian who resolutely dissents from Humanae Vitae. At the same time, I do think that there is not a whole lot for the Pope to clarify here: He doubts many will be lost and has a higher degree of confidence that the grace of Christ will penetrate hearts and minds than many Catholics in the past have had. Fr. Barron is perfectly right to note that this is the case about what Benedict is expressing in Spe Salvi, and perfectly within his rights to both agree with the Pope and think this is helpful for evangelization, since it sacrifices nothing of the core teaching of the Church, retains the truth of the reality of hell, and helps confused post-moderns grasp the point that God has sacrificed all in Christ to save us from hell, not to delectate over sending us there.
The great fear, of course (expressed, for instance, by my reader above), is that without hell, nobody will be motivated to believe. I would suggest that this is a poor understanding of what it means to be a disciple. A real disciple is one out of love for Jesus, not terror of hell. At the same time, as Sherry Weddell has pointed out, most Catholics are de facto universalists, practicing a cheap sort of presumption that does indeed often amount to “I don’t need to tell anybody about the gospel because it’s automatic heaven for all anyway.” I think having a better idea of what Hell is, rather than simply a dreadful terror of somehow accidently going there due to membership in a statistical bloc, is the ticket for catechesis on Hell. And when it comes to catechesis on the nature of Hell, I think Fr. Barron does a bang-up job.