Lame Reactionary Anti-Francis “No Hell” Argument

Lame Reactionary Anti-Francis “No Hell” Argument April 2, 2018

I’ve come to expect lame arguments from fundamentalist anti-Catholics and atheists about Scripture: wooden literalism, butchery of context, inability or unwillingness to seek to understand the intent of the writer, cluelessness as to literary genre, eisegesis, etc.

What’s sad is that radical reactionary Catholics do the same exact thing to the pope‘s words, and then spread far and wide such nonsense and calumny as if it were gospel TRVTH.

Presently, I am examining how a single sentence in Pope Francis’ document, Amoris Laetitia, has been taken completely out of context and made to supposedly assert something (a denial of eternal punishing hellfire) that had nothing whatsoever to do with what was being stated in context.

If reactionaries insist on embarrassing themselves over and over in spectacles like this, I am more than happy to expose and refute their efforts. I can’t stop them from looking like fools, but I can stop them in their nefarious and slanderous efforts to make Pope Francis look like a heretic.

We’ll start with the (shall we say?) illustrious Hilary White:

And let’s not forget how eager everyone was to ignore this little gem: AmL.297, “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” (Twitter, 3-30-18)

Echoing her is Steve Skojec of One Vader Five infamy:

And of course, if we really doubt that this is what the pope believes about Hell, there’s the little matter of Amoris Laetitia 297, which reads, “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” This little gem, “If understood as meaning that no human being can or will be condemned to eternal punishment in Hell,” was given the theological censure of “Heretical, contrary to sacred Scripture” by a group of 45 international theologians and Catholic scholars in 2016. (3-29-18)

I wrote in January, in a paper of mine that examined some of the signatories of the document signed by 45 people in June 2016:

The document from 29 June 2016, signed by 45 theologians, priests, and other Catholic scholars, included ten known radical Catholic reactionaries [see definition] who were signatories of the Filial Correction (which I dealt with at length in my recent paper on that influence). The common reactionary signatories are Fr. Barthe, Fr. Crean, Fr. Hunwicke, Dr. Lamont, Fr. Lanzetta, Dr. Pierantoni, Dr. Radaelli, Dr. Rao, Dr. Shaw, and Dr. Silvas. . . .

Moreover, I would classify two additional signatories as reactionaries — or at the very least, close to that position — based on my own familiarity with them: Fr. Brian W. Harrison and Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski (whom I have dialogued with regarding “the reform of the reform of the Mass”).

Assuming the correctness of my classification, that means at least twelve of the signatories out of 45 (27%), of the June 2016 document, are reactionaries.

The full text of the latter document is published on one of the pages of the quasi-schismatic ultra-reactionary group SSPX. Here is the portion that Skojec referred to:

5) AL 297 : ‘No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!’

If understood as meaning that no human being can or will be condemned to eternal punishment in hell:

  1. Haeretica, sacrae Scripturae contraria.
  2. Scandalosa, perniciosa.

Matt. 25: 46:

These shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting”

See also: Mt. 7:22-23; Lk. 16: 26; Jn. 17:12; Apoc. 20:10; 16th Synod of Toledo (DH 574); 4th Lateran Council, DH 801; Benedict XII, Constitution Benedictus DeusDH 1002; Council of Florence, decree Laetentur caeliDH 1306; John Paul II, Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Recentiores episcoporumAAS 71 (1979): 941; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033-37.

There is just a slight problem with these charges. The words in question have nothing whatsoever to do with hell. Here is the full context, so that it’s clear to anyone with even a minimum of open-mindedness and fair-mindedness that the criticism is dead wrong and empty-headed (all italics and bolding and blue coloring are mine; footnote numbers are bracketed and in green):

296.  The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement… The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous”. [326] Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”. [327]

297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest. As for the way of dealing with different “irregular” situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, [328] something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

[Footnotes:

326 Homily at Mass Celebrated with the New Cardinals (15
February 2015): AAS 107 (2015), 257.

327 Relatio Finalis 2015, 51.

328 Relatio Synodi 2014, 25 ]

Clearly he’s talking about expressions of mercy and forgiveness within the Church, not questions of eternal destiny to either heaven or hell. The easiest way to establish this is to observe the corresponding reference, in almost immediate context, to Matthew 18:17, which reads (RSV): “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Pope Francis is saying that if someone “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches”, this “separates [them] from the community” (then he cites the above Bible passage).

He talked about “needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community” and being shown mercy in order to do so. Then he says the line in question: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” It’s clear as day what he means. But if someone insists on finding in his writing whatever thing they are looking for, then it can be “made” unclear (in that person’s mind, anyway).

The Holy Father is talking about forgiving 70 x 7. He’s talking about the same sort of Church-imposed sanctions and penances that St. Paul addressed in the following passage:

2 Corinthians 2:6-8, 10-11 For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough;  [7] so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. [8] So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. . . . [10] Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ,  [11] to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (he appears to be referring back to his earlier passage where he counseled separating sinners from the congregation: 1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

If we consult the pope’s homily cited in footnote 326 above, it, too, proves that the pope’s overall meaning is welcoming everyone (minus those in obdurate sin) into the Church community. He talks a lot about lepers and states things like the following (my blue emphases):

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people! . . . 

He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10). . . . 

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. 

This, again, is the backdrop and context in which Pope Francis writes: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”

Pope Francis firmly believes in hell. I’ve already written three articles proving that (one / two / three; see especially the first for the direct quotations from his addresses). That shouldn’t be at issue at all. This passage certainly does not prove that he denies hell. It has nothing to do with the topic in the first place.

Yet there are several more writers (I don’t know how many are reactionaries) who have made this same logically atrocious argument [one / two / three / four / five / six / seven / eight / nine / ten / eleven]. Venues that have printed this insipid interpretation include (in the preceding links) First Things, Crisis Magazine, Lifesite News (reactionary), The American Catholic, The Remnant (reactionary), Catholic Family News (reactionary), and aka Catholic (extreme reactionary). 

Even canon lawyer Edward Peters, who is not a reactionary, falls into the same silliness:

4. In AL 297, Francis writes: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” To the contrary, it is precisely the logic of the Gospel that one can be condemned forever. CCC 1034-1035. If one meant, say, that no one can be ‘condemned for ever’ by earthly authority, one should have said so. But, of course, withholding holy Communion from those in “public and permanent adultery” is not a “condemnation” at all, so the point being made is not clear.

To the contrary, it is abundantly clear in context, as I think has been amply demonstrated above, and further, below. Raymond Cardinal Burke also fails to see the blatant misrepresentation going on here.

Steven O’Reilly at the Roma Locuta Est website offers penetrating in-depth commentary on this very question: whether hell is denied (or even addressed at all) in Amoris Laetitia:

The pope’s statement that “no one can be condemned for ever (per sempre), because this is not the logicof the Gospel” refers back to the “logic”- i.e., the one of the two ways of thinking he advocated for the Church in paragraph 296- in which he says this is the Church’s way, which is “always the way of Jesus”.  That is to say: “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever (eternamente nessuno); it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”    This linkage seems clearer to me, at least, in reading the Italian where the same term-“logica”- is used in both places (i.e., paragraphs 296 and 297). While the pope has changed perspective from the Church (‘the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever’) to that of the individual (“no one can be condemned for ever), his thought appears the same, or is at least arguably so.  The text (cf AL 296, n. 326; 297) supports the case that the “logic” referenced by the pope points to the reinstatement of the repentant sinner into the ecclesial life of the Church-contrasted with the logic that would prohibit a sinner from that ecclesial life (e.g., like the leper imagined in his homily in n. 326). The pope’s intent is not to comment on hell or damnation at all. . . . 

As an aside, in the English translation of Amoris Laetitia, “for ever” is used in both places in the paragraphs we are examining (i.e., “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever” (AL 296); and “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel” (AL 297)However, in the Italian, in the first instance (AL 296) the meaning is ‘the Church does not condemn anyone eternally (eternamente nessuno),” while the Italian “per sempre” (for always) is used in the second instance (i.e., AL 297). While it may seem like a distinction without a difference, it softens to some degree the second instance (i.e., AL 297) as “for ever” could conceivably refer to the temporal order in this world.

Nathan O’Halloran, writing for Commonweal (a theologically liberal magazine but correct here), also refutes these glaring errors:

Next Murdoch takes on paragraph 297, which states that “no one is condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” She claims that this statement is “not ambiguous” and “implies the non-existence of hell and even suggests dissimulation on the part of Christ, who preached about hell almost as much as heaven.” But she reads the line entirely out of context. In the preceding paragraph (296), Pope Francis writes that “the way of the church is not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.” Paragraph 297 then continues: “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” In other words, the line “no one can be condemned forever” has to be understood in terms of who is doing the condemning. The point is clearly that the church cannot condemn anyone forever. Only God and the person him or herself can do that. Murdoch is right: there is no real ambiguity here, unless one ignores the context.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller has also provided what I believe is the correct (and infinitely more plausible) interpretation of #297 (bolding in original removed):

Even when it is said “that no one can be condemned forever” this must be understood from the point of view of care, that never surrenders, for the eternal salvation of sinner rather than as a categorical denial of the possibility of an eternal condemnation which, however, presupposes voluntary obstinacy in sin. There are sins in the categories of the Church that exclude themselves from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6,9-11) but only until the sinner opposes their forgiveness and rejects the grace of repentance and conversion. The Church, however, in her maternal concern, does not renounce any person who is a pilgrim on this earth and leaves the final judgment to God, the only who knows the thoughts of hearts. The Church’s task is preaching of conversion and faith and the sacramental mediation of grace that justifies, sanctifies and heals. For God says, “I do not enjoy the death of the wicked, but that the wicked desist from their conduct and live” (Ez. 33:11).

We live in an age where anti-intellectualism and hostility to actual reason grows by the day. People act like sheep, and are more concerned with what “everyone else” thinks (ad populum fallacy) than with examining a given thing for themselves: utilizing a critical faculty and independent thought. This is what is so frightening and troublesome, particularly with regard to the currently chic hostility to Pope Francis.

So many people didn’t care enough about this issue to take five minutes to read the context of the Pope’s statements, to seek what he actually meant, rather than immediate alleged “proof” of what they were already predisposed to think about him: itself mostly based on a judgment as to what is fashionable and popular.

It’s disgraceful and inexcusable to misrepresent and distort what anyone thinks: all the more so the Holy Father.

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Photo credit: photograph of lava flow by skeeze (4-24-15) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]

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