The Hell Kerfuffle and Fussy Perfectionism

The Hell Kerfuffle and Fussy Perfectionism November 14, 2013

Recently, in this space and elsewhere, I defended Fr. Robert Barron from the charge of being “WRONG!” in his speculations about hell.  As I pointed out then, Barron represents a school of speculation, not only permitted by the Magisterium, but actually voiced by Pope Benedict himself in Spe Salvi.  Of course, right on cue, fifty million people showed up in my comboxes to argue urgently that HELL EXISTS (something Barron and Benedict do not deny) and to press ever and ever harder for their curious desire that it be as densely populated as possible.

“That’s not fair!  Nobody wants hell to be densely populated!  They just know it is and are speaking the TRVTH.”

Actually, no.  They don’t know that.  What they know is their favorite proof texts from the Bible, selected according to their pre-ordained conclusions, just as Universalists brandish their favorite proof texts “proving” the opposite.  We don’t *know* anything about the end of the story.  Which is why the Church prays–in hope, not knowledge–that all will be saved.  In the liturgy no less.  All Barron and Benedict say is “It’s better to hope that all men will be saved than to hope that some will be damned.  And since the liturgy encourages us to do exactly that, it’s permissible to hope (though human free will always means that anybody is capable of choosing damnation).  Indeed, it is *commanded* to hope since Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.  It is only forbidden to claim to *know*.

Now, for me, the interesting thing is that the exact same subculture of More Pure than Pure Catholics who are so eager to declare Barron (and, though they won’t admit it, Benedict) Teachers of Error for the crime of hoping, are also the same people who have, for years, complained at me for being a prissy perfectionist because I won’t “get my hands dirty” by endorsing political agendas that involve supporting sins the Church herself says are worthy of the everlasting fires of hell.  From torture, to unjust war, to supporting lying in order to deliberately tempt somebody to help commit murder for the sake of a photo op, to voting for candidates like Mitt Romney who spent years supporting abortion and transparently had not changed his mind one bit, to excuse-making for Ayn Rand’s hellish philosophy of contempt for the poor that makes Dives look like Glinda the Good Witch, the same subculture so *eager* to hope that most will be damned was, just a couple of years ago, telling me that if I didn’t “get my hands dirty” and support torture, or tempting clinic workers into committing gravely immoral acts for the sake of a photo op, or lying for Jesus, or voting for pols who advocated grave intrinsic evil, I was (to quote one egregious and embarrassing attempt to strongarm me into line) “spilling my vote upon the ground” (if you get my meaning and catch my drift).

Here’s reality: I do not and never have denied the possibility of hell for me or anybody else.  Nor, by the way, does Barron or Benedict.  The proof of it in my case is that I think that wanting to attain heaven and avoid hell is elementary Catholic instinct and not fussy perfectionism.  I make absolutely no judgment about how *other* people vote since that’s between them and their conscience. But I’ll be (literally) damned if I’ll let somebody strong arm me into voting for somebody who advocates grave intrinsic evil “for fellowship’s” sake”.  It would be great if the people who are so eager to hope for the damnation of most would consider the disconnect between that hope and their weird desire to portray refusal to support grave intrinsic evil as “perfectionism” and not as what it is: the bare minimum of human decency.

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  • Dan C

    So…here’s the deal. All should fear hellfire. On my bad days, afflicted and punished by my enemies, I too gleefully embrace that there is Judgement. That the psalms seem to say the oppressor of the poor will have their comeuppance in divine judgement.

    I unlike Longenecker and others do not consider my gleeful desire as a virtue of faith. It does not lead me to being a better human. This seems to be the point of departure.

    To have a belief in a highly populated hell seems to be the held as a virtue and there is no evidence that spiritual growth and development lies in its embrace. In fact, honest readings by our contemporary spiritual teachers (the pope, Padre Pio) would absolutely say otherwise.

    I know enough about my spiritual development to know that when I am thinking or fantasizing that my enemies, whether at work or among the conservative Catholics, will face Judgement, I do so from a point of weakness and vice, not virtue.

    I claim that this desire for a highly populated Hell, is a vice and has no spiritual merits.

    • Dave

      I think one can (and must) hope for a very lightly populated hell, but yet that hopeful person may read the Scriptures, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, etc. and conclude that they state otherwise.

      Which leads to a better practice of the Faith, an attitude bordering on presumption that probably almost all are saved, or an attitude that we really have to treat our salvation as a matter of fear and trembling? We don’t really have to wonder about the answer to this question. We can just look at our modern society, which is composed of mostly “Christians” who think that pretty much everyone has it made in the shade, and compare it to previous generations in Church history who held a more sober view.

      • Dan C

        “Which leads to a better practice of the Faith, an attitude bordering on presumption that probably almost all are saved, or an attitude that we really have to treat our salvation as a matter of fear and trembling?”

        Here is where I say that one departs from the teaching of Benedict. Benedict would say that this approach is the wrong set of questions. The point is “All the way to Heaven is Heaven because Jesus says I am the Way.” We want to bring people to the joy of the community of the Church. And fear of hell and damnation may not be techniques to improved spiritual growth, at least not by most assessments of how one grows in discipleship. I reference Sherry Weddell and Benedict on this.

        I have little thought that what the hyper acute judge about “other Christians” in terms of committed discipleship. About how it relates to the vision of salvation in their minds and how this vision is with regard to previous centuries. I claim it is little worse than Gospel quoting Alabama in 1950, or the baptized Catholic in rural France in 950.

        • Dave

          I had a hard time understanding much of what you were trying to say. I do agree that an exaggerated fear of Hell isn’t the best motivation for spiritual growth. The traditional teaching of the Church says as much…but fear of Hell is *A* motivation and a legitimate one for those at a more basic level. If we never get past that to motivations based on the love of God, we are missing the point to a large extent, and will not reach the heights of holiness.

          • Dan C

            I reference a sermon that Benedict gives that answers releated questions.

            In short, the motivation is to experience Heaven in the “now.” This is the role of salvation. The faith teaches that this reality is both a “vale of tears” but also Heaven (as I noted by the Catherine of Siena quote). It is a complex intellectually and meditational point and I explain it poorly.

            In short, in referencing Matthew’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the goal is that we are the ones who show up early, because it is better to be employed in the service of the Master than not.


            This is the actual tradition of the Church, referencing that deep discussions on such matters occur, such that a blog-posting priest is probably a poor reference, or even a book by Ralph Martin.

          • Dan C

            Also, the second point is that judgement of how other Christians in the pews view the work of salvation is 1) unlikely to be different in practice than any other century and 2) not my business.

  • capaxdei

    I continue to think that discussions along these lines demonstrate how little we know, not of hell, but of hope.

    • freddy

      Beautifully written. Hope has become a forgotten virtue. And among some *political* conservatives, hope has become more of a vice than a virtue. Last election cycle it was very painful and difficult to hear my dad, whom I love and respect, clinging to Romney and excoriating me for choosing to vote third party. He stated that it would be “my fault” if Obama won my state and that he would “blame me.”
      It takes hope and courage to build something beautiful; whether populating the kingdom of heaven or working toward a just society on earth. I think it can be fairly said that reactionaries are, in many cases, people who have lost hope.

    • Dan C

      I agree. I also note how little attention is spent on the image that Christ, as the Way, not only leads us to Everlasting Life, but allows us to share it on the way (or the Way).

    • Dan C

      John, as a Gospel, is a quite hippy dippy Gospel. Read as a complete unit, it has a very interesting philosophical set of premises for the foundation of spiritual experience.

    • Sam Schmitt

      I’ve never understood how one can hope for someone else. I get it in a loose sense, that one believes in and prays for the mercy of God for others, etc. But just as one cannot believe or love on behalf of another, so it seems that hope (as a theological virtue) can only apply to the one hoping.

      • Dan C

        For what do we hope? A good grade? Health? Sure.

        The more virtuous hope for more. The love of God and neighbor (with the appendix question: Who is my neighbor answered in a different parable) should inform the virtuous hopes.

        We can hope for our family’s health and welfare, even spiritual welfare. Then we can hope for the “holy poor” (whoever they are) and that they know the fulfillment of the promises of the magnificat.

        We step out in enlarging concentric circles of people to love as we grow our spirituality, ultimately loving and hoping for our enemies.

        There is no loose sense of hoping for others. It is a real and direct sense.

      • capaxdei

        St. Thomas answers that “hope regards directly one’s own good, and not that which pertains to another.” So strictly speaking, you’re onto something.

        “Yet,” St. Thomas goes on, “if we presuppose the union of love with another, a man can hope for and desire something for another man, as for himself; and, accordingly, he can hope for another’s eternal life, inasmuch as he is united to him by love, and just as it is the same virtue of charity whereby a man loves God, himself, and his neighbor, so too it is the same virtue of hope, whereby a man hopes for himself and for another.”

    • capaxdei

      Hmm. With 12 up votes, it may be too late to clarify that I very much meant to include those who glibly speak of hoping that all may be saved in the “we” who know little of hope.

  • linda daily

    When I read these blogs and comments, it seems to me that the Church is struggling with the same immigration issues as our nation. The recent wave of fundamentalist immigrants has not yet assimilated and still live in two cultures. The struggle is played out daily here. I trust mightily that God knows how to bring all things together.

    • ppeter

      No. The ‘wave’ of Protestant converts to the Catholic Church is only a trickle in absolute terms. Some of these converts may end up as extremists, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that many of the perfectionists of which Mark speaks are ex-Protestants or significantly influenced by ex-Prots. Extreme traddery is our own problem, and it’s nothing new.

      • david

        I agree that in absolute terms the fundie influence is small, but a lot of online Catholics causing the biggest problems are converts, who suddenly become “experts” in Catholicism after being Catholic for about a day.

        I know, because I was one. Thankfully I simmered down.

        When I was a new Catholic I knew a guy who converted from Calvinism. He immediately became an overbearing trad (not saying all trads are) because, to him, the most rigorous form of Catholicism had to be the truest form (a la Calvinist thinking).

        I am not sure what happened to him, but his online “mentor” was an SSPX-leaning guy who considered Judaism worse than Satanism, and who refused to smile in photos because that was a modernist invention.

  • Gabriel Blanchard

    “And when we die, and you are sent to Heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to Hell for not doing mine: will you join me, for fellowship?”

    Good stuff. 🙂

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    You’ll notice that Our Lord Himself refused to answer this question. When asked how many would be in Heaven, He told a parable, the point of which is that we must desire Heaven and strive for it. But Our Lord refused to give a population estimate. We should follow His example.
    I do know his: No one is in Hell who doesn’t deserve to be there. And only One Man is in Heaven who does deserve to be there God is just, and God is merciful.

  • Linebyline

    The entire debate misses the glaringly obvious point that our goal as Christians is not to figure out how may are in hell, but to do everything we can to keep that number (whatever it is) from getting any bigger.

  • The Next to Last Samurai

    I’m not going to tackle any theological issues, but I did want to point out what a fun phrase Hell Kerfuffle is. Try it. Say it loud. Say it proud. I’m going to name my next dog Hell Kerfuffle so I can yell it out loud enough to be heard all the way down the street.

  • IRVCath

    For me, it does not matter if there are presently a hundred or a hundred million people in Hell. I’m much more interested in making sure people don’t go there, and that I am not added to their number.

  • anna lisa

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this. Few things bother me as much as hearing that “the vast majority of human beings will go to Hell”. It makes me wonder if we worship the same God. A tiny part of my heart is terrorized that they might be right,because they are right about other things but then the small, still voice calms me, and reassures me that He is not like that. I am reminded that the gall and bitterness that fire and brimstone leave in my heart reminds me of what they very presence of evil is like.

    How on earth can a priest or theologian be so adamant that “few are saved”? Do they not realize how this incites people to regard that crowd of people in the mall, the floor of the office or stadium…?

    Consider the thought process as this person regards the crowd… “Hmmmmm…statistically speaking, most of these people will be tossed in the unquenchable fire forever…sucks for them! No wonder I don’t like people so much…they’re not good enough…heck, *I’m* barely tolerable…”

    How do people learn to love if they believe their father has a trap door beneath their feet, and is holding the lever?

    • capaxdei

      The question isn’t, “Is God like that?” It’s, “Are we like that?”

      How people react to the belief that few are saved doesn’t affect whether that belief is true.

      “Their father has a trap door beneath their feet, and is holding the lever” is a complete mischaracterization of the Augustinian position.

      • Athelstane

        Well said, Capax.

  • Kristen

    I really really appreciate what Father Barron was saying (and what I understand Hans Urs von Balthasar to be saying, although von B is a bit dense for me. I trust Father Barron’s reading, though. 🙂 ) All of my instincts will fall on his sort of speculations and I look at Aquinas and Augustine on the subject with horror.
    That having been said, as I understand it, von Balthasar was saying that we can reasonably hope that ALL will be saved. Every single solitary person. Much like the saying attributed to Therese of Lisieux (which may be accurate, I’m not sure) “I believe in hell — an empty one.”
    That seems hard to square with the gospels. That isn’t what Benedict was speculating in Spe Salvi — he was speculating that there may only be a small handful that are ultimately lost but he was pretty clear that there IS at least a small handful who ultimately reject God. Hell may be sparsely populated but it’s not empty. It’s been a while since I read this but I think that in the interview published as Crossing the Threshold of Hope (not a magisterial document, but still) John Paul II was explicit that the text of the Gospels do not permit von B’s hope that ALL will ultimately saved. There may not be many who are lost but we have to think there are some.
    (That is a different thing than being confident that any individual is lost. Maybe we can argue about being confident about Judas, but that’s it.)

    It seems to me that is a solid textual point. I hope it’s mistaken and von B is correct, but I’m not sure that’s a reasonable hope.
    This is, however, a very different point from insisting that the vast majority of humanity is lost.

  • Athelstane

    In other words, Mark, you’re saying that Ralph Martin is wrong.

    Because the whole flap began when Fr. Barron ripped Ralph Martin’s new book “Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and its Implications for the New Evangelization,”. He wrote in critique, suggesting that Martin is dissenting from the teaching of Pope Benedict:

    “[O]ne 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.”

    Yet as Martin pointed out in reply, it’s fairly plain that Pope Benedict’s comment in Spe Salvi was a theological reflection, not a dogmatic teaching (which, if it were, would pose real problems in reconciling with past Church teaching on hell). As Prof. Martin says: “I think Fr. Barron is overstating what Benedict is intending to do in this text.”

    It’s not for us to speculate on the population of hell, but rather to save as many as can be saved, and pray for that. But in an age when the present danger is not Jansenism, but rampant universalism, Fr. Barron’s comments are…most unhelpful. And, to be honest, very problematic. And this is even more true of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a theologian I admire in many ways, but is deeply problematic on this. It speaks well of both men that they want to see as many saved as possible, rather than packing hell as full as possible. But these distinctions matter. Hell is a real place, and souls do go there (Trent, DS 1820; CCC 1035).

    Fr. Barron is an admirable voice for the Church, and an invaluable catechist and apologist. We use his “Catholicism” series in my parish, and with good results. But we’re not under any obligation to defend him at every turn, or every comment he makes. On this dispute, Professor Martin has the better of the argument, because the weight of Tradition is more firmly in his corner. And, to be frank, how other people may or may not vote, or for what reasons, or criticize you for the same, is really diversion from the issue at hand.

    • chezami

      No. I’m saying Ralph Martin’s opinion is, like Fr. Barron’s, within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy.

      • Athelstane

        Well, Fr. Barron, it seems, would disagree with you, Mark.