A reader writes:
I have two unrelated questions I was hoping you could answer for me on your blog:
1. If God is the source and essence of existence, how can a soul (or the devil, for that matter) be in Hell (the state of being eternally separated from God) without ceasing to exist altogether? Is Hell not really a full separation from God, or perhaps God imparts a sort of self-sufficiency to those who choose to be separated from him?
I suspect the issue turns on the meaning of “separation”. The Catechism describes Hell as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed”. and tells us “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.” (CCC 1033). From this, I take it that the damned are as separated from God as they can make themselves. That’s a different thing than being separated from God absolutely since, as you note, to be separated absolutely would entail ceasing to be entirely. The devil, presumably the creature most separated from God, still retains such goods as being, intelligence, will, and power–all of which he owes to his Creator (though all these goods are as radically perverted as Satan can make them). For a damned soul to suffer the torments of hell, it therefore would appear to follow that it does all it can to separate itself from God, but cannot, in the end, achieve the non-existence its evil strives toward. It “asserts its nothingness” (as I think Augustine put it) but does not fully achieve that nothingness. God, for his part, goes on being as generous to the damned as the damned will allow him to be, continuing to give being, power, intelligence and will as gifts to the damned, which they eternally radically pervert. Just speculation on my part, of course. But it seems to comport with the Tradition.
2. Sometimes I hear Catholics bring up the post-Reformation fragmentation of Protestant Christianity as proof that it was a mistake for Luther and the other Reformers to split from the true Church – that this fragmentation is the fruit of abandoning the true Church. However, my aunt (a convert to Russian Orthodoxy) recently made a similar argument to me about the Great Schism. Her argument is that when the Roman church split from the true Orthodox Church, it paved the way for further fragmentation and heresy in Western Europe and Western civilization in general for the next thousand years. This makes me wonder if it’s our pontiff and bishops who should go back on their knees to the Orthodox bishops begging forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, I wonder if that might not be the right approach *regardless* of who was right and wrong in the Schism. Interested in your thoughts, and please also join me in praying for Christian unity.
I think there’s plent of blame on all sides for Christian disunity and that Catholics certainly carry their share of it. As near as I can see, the popes since the council, particularly JPII, have repeatedly done exactly what you seek in, for instance, the acts of repentance JPII offered in the lead up to the celebration of the Third Millennium and in such encyclicals as Ut Unum Sint. I’m not Orthodox, so I don’t know how those overtures of repentance have been received in the East, but they have been offered by the Holy Father. And yes, I do join you in praying for Christian unity.