I like Ralph Martin

I like Ralph Martin July 22, 2014

…much as I like Fr. Robert Barron. I have had the pleasure of meeting both men and think them both good and honorable. Alas, in our polarized Church of internet team sports, more and more people find that hard to understand, since these two good men have engaged in controversy with one another and so (to the team sport mind) we are expected to choose a side, cheer for one, and denounce the other. But the glory of the Catholic intellectual tradition is its capaciousness. “In essential things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.” Barron and Martin exemplify this, I think, in their arguments and in their manner of thought. They are not, in fact, opposites and they are certainly not enemies (though the black and white mob would have them be both, as mobs always do). To me, however, they embody approaches to the question of our eternal destiny that are as old as the Church. As I wrote sometime back:

The thing to always bear in mind in discussions about hell is that the New Testament and the Catholic tradition frequently present us with various truths in tension with one another. So the Tradition insists that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that all have sinned and that Mary is without sin, that God predestines and that we have free will, that God is all powerful and immortal and that Jesus was weak and mortal, that God is one and that God is three, etc. At various times and places, every one of these propositions has stuck in somebody’s craw and various zealots have refused to remain with the tension but have instead attempted to “resolve” the tension by simply abolishing one or the other poles of tension and settling on the easy solution of simply declaring the part of the Tradition they like to be the “truth” while the part they don’t like is explained away as a “corruption” or “outdated” or in some other way subordinate to the “main thing”–that is, the part of the Tradition they like. This is what all heresy attempts to do.

Now another aspect of Catholic tradition that has plagued simplifiers down through the ages is the question of hell: Will many (or all) be saved or few? And there have always been Catholics who emphasize either the fewness or the manyness of the saved—and who cite various authorities in the Tradition itself as backup for their views. That’s not hard to do since the Tradition has, in fact, two irreconcilable (for human intellect) strains of teaching, both originating in Jesus himself and both faithfully transmitted by the apostles. They are summarized in the sayings of Jesus that, on the one hand, “broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there be that walk therein”, and on the other hand, “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to me.” The apostles echo this, of course, warning of everlasting damnation for the wicked and, at the same time, insisting that God wills to save all. They don’t even attempt to reconcile these two aspects of the Tradition. They simply transmit them.

But, of course, Christians after them do try to reconcile them. And the way they try to resolve the tension reveals, not anything about the Tradition, but about the personalities and/or cultural priorities of the Christians trying to do the reconciling. Some Christians (including, yes, orthodox Fathers of the Church) have emphasized the manyness of the saved. Some the fewness (the preponderance have emphasized this). But (and here is the central point), while lots of figures have speculated on the manyness and the fewness, the Church herself has never made any formal comment on the matter, with one exception. The only thing the Church has ever done is condemn the claim that we can know all will be saved. (For obvious reasons, she has never had to address an opposing claim that we can know all will be damned since, if we knew that, there wouldn’t be much point to the Christian revelation at all, would there?  The Christian revelation is, at minimum, the claim that somebody will be saved.)

So: we cannot know all or most will be saved. On the other hand, we also can’t know that most or many will be damned. Why? Because we’re not God and we don’t know the end of the story. We do not have knowledge. We only have the virtue of hope. And the Church has never condemned the claim that we can hope many or even all will be saved.

There’s a very good reason for that: The Church herself, following the apostles, prays in her liturgy that all will be saved. You can’t pray for the impossible.You cannot pray for what God has revealed he will never ever do.  So, for instance, there are no prayers in the liturgy for the salvation of Satan.  Why?  Because it has been revealed to us that Satan is damned.  But we do pray–and have always prayed–for the salvation of all people.  Why?  Because the Church prays in the hope (not the knowledge) that all will be saved and always has, ever since Paul wrote “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32) and

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

So the Church prays for the salvation of all in hope.  But that’s all it is: hope, not knowledge. That’s because what we have are the virtues of faith and hope, not of knowledge and certitude. Indeed, in the Catholic tradition, the twin enemies of hope are two forms of certitude: presumption and despair.

Presumption claims to know the end of the story and says, “I know all will be saved, so let’s blow off God’s commandments and do as we please without fear of consequences.”

Despair says, “I know that no matter what I do, I’ll be damned, so let’s give up right now.”

Both are enemies of hope, which looks, not to the future with certitude of the end of the story, but to Christ in the sacrament of the present moment.

Now the tricky part about all this in the Church’s intellectual tradition is that, so long as you don’t claim knowledge or certitude, you can be all over the map in your speculations about the census statistics in hell.  So, for instance, when Augustine and various Fathers of the Church speculate on the manyness of the damned they are perfectly within their rights to do so.  However, we must also bear in mind that no matter how many Fathers and theologians offer their speculations on the fewness of the saved, what we still have, at the end of the day, is a lot of speculation.  We do not have “the teaching of the Church” because the Church, in fact, has never ventured an opinion, much less a doctrine, on the population of hell.  An idea does not become “the teaching of the Church” simply because a lot of Catholics speculate about it.  This is why, despite centuries of speculation about Limbo or the Great Monarch or the antichrist arising from the tribe of Dan, such speculations are not “the teaching of the Church” but simply the same guesses made by a lot of people–and never confirmed or denied by the Magisterium.

Because of this Magisterial agnosticism about the population of hell, when somebody offers a different speculation from common patristic and medieval opinion they are free to do so.  Thus, when Pope Benedict opines in Spe Salvi:

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[37]. 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[38].

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[39]. 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).

…and a Fr. Robert Barron follows him in sharing this hopeful speculation that the bulk of the human race will not be lost, this does not represent a “departure from traditional teaching” for a very good reason: both schools of speculation are within the pale of traditional Church teaching since the traditional teaching of the Church has never forbidden either school of speculation.  It has only forbidden claims of knowledge that all or most will be saved.  If you are not claiming knowledge, but only expressing hope,that many will be saved you are as orthodox as, you know, Pope Benedict.

Some people, unnerved by the fact that Magisterium does not join them in the attempt to claim knowledge on this matter, will often try to wring super-duper divine trump card backup for their school of opinion from some private revelation such as Fatima (this is typically done by partisans of the “few will be saved” school).  The idea here is not that Mary is another god, but rather that she is another pope–filling in holes in public revelation with “secret knowledge” that will set the Church straight and put the smackdown on that irksome other pole of tension that is complicating everything.  So enthusiasts for the view that few will be saved love to point to the famous Vision of Hell in which the Fatima visionaries were shown souls falling into hell like snowflakes.  Case closed!

Or not.  Since the other thing the children are commanded to do is pray “lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy”.  So the private revelation does what authentic private revelations are supposed to do: point us back to the public revelation.  And the public revelation speaks of both the danger of damnation for each person and the hope of salvation for each person.  So we are left with that: the warning spurring us to act and the faith calling us to pray and act in hope for all.  That’s all we’ve got: hope.

That said, I also agree with with Ralph Martin, when he says (in an interview with Pete Socks found here):

While we have been very good at emphasizing the mercy and love of God for many years now a certain indifference, even presumption, has crept into many minds and hearts, to the effect: since virtually everyone will be saved there is no real urgency to evangelize.

I think there is a lot to this, in that the problem overwhelming the average Catholic today is not an overabundance of zeal to evangelize, but an eagerness to live as though we are all de facto universalists and that everybody will be saved if they just keep their nose clean, be nice, and recycle.  Evangelization is not a big priority at a lived level for many Catholics, and this laissez faire attitude toward it is reflected in our lackluster failure to evangelize even ourselves.  As one priest I know put it, we are sacramentalized, but not especially evangelized.  We know (sort of) that we need to get the sacramental card punched each week (or something less than 50% of us do), but beyond that our formation in the faith takes a back seat to what our fave rave subculture tells us is the important stuff.  We generally can’t name the four gospels, much less have the slightest idea what the Church says about this and that, nor be able to find out from the Catechism.

The irony, of course, is that nobody is more acutely aware of that than Fr. Robert Barron, who is one of the most potent evangelists on the global stage  today.  Which means that the problem is not particularly due to sharing Benedict’s speculations about hell, but to something else. That something else is, I suspect, in the will, not the intellect.  Being Catholic is just hard.  It demands a lot.  People who are willing to give Jesus their all–people like both Barron and Martin–are not the norm.  And so us average Catholics are average.

But we don’t have to be.  And both Martin and Barron are signs of hope to me that I don’t have to live the banal life I so often choose to live.  Both are disciples of Jesus Christ, and I’m honored to have had a chance to meet both.

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  • Dave G.

    “In essential things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.”


    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      Yep yep yep. I was not aware there was any “controversy” between the two men.

      Is it possible the supposed “conflict” is being blown out of proportion by ye olde Internette, which as we all know does nothing but foster peace and goodwill among men? I mean, everyone on the Internet is always fair and magnanimous, right?

      • Dave G.

        That’s my experience. 😀

        Though it’s been my ten year experience that the first category (essential things) seems to have grown quite a bit over the years. Ah I remember a time when wrath and fury was reserved for but a few key topics. Now? I’ve lost track of all the subjects that bring out Raca and Fool in the Catholic blogosphere. Which seems to be in keeping with the basic nature of Internet progress. Sometimes I wonder how much when we think we are evangelizing the world, the world is actually evangelizing us.

      • I was not aware there was any “controversy” between […]

        Perhaps not a particular “controversy”, but I’ve noticed a pernicious tendency among Catholics to place spiritual writers and theologians into either the “good” box or the “bad” box. When I mention that I’m reading someone like Martin, the first response is often: “Isn’t he the guy who … [advocates some suspect position that was once the subject of a condemnation by Pius IX or Urban IICX]?”

        That one could read profitably someone with whom one does not entirely agree never gets acknowledged. All that matters is whether he’s “safe” or not.

  • Dan C

    The “few will be saved” leads often to one of the poor habits of thinking of Evangelicalism. The Evangelical, in assuming predestination and other Born Again thinking patterns, rarely is asserting that he is one of the damned. That he is not predestined.

    The “few will be saved” theory again often finds the speakers and supporters assured they will be among the “few.” Those excluded become “them” and in the context of the culture war, “the enemy” and since they are not saved, the enemy is really “an agent of The Enemy.”

    Pride and hate tend toward the fruit of this theory of salvation. It does serve a certain side of the culture war, much as the ennui of near- universal salvation serves another.

    • Dave G

      I didn’t know you were a Protestant convert.

      • Dan C

        No. I was a Catholic in an area that was divided strongly between Italian-Catholics and intense viewers of the 700 Club. I was not among the saved.

        • Dave G.

          I don’t think you get them then. Any more than those who think Catholics worship the pope get Catholicism.

          • Edwin Woodruff Tait

            No, I think he’s on target, except that he seems to think that evangelicals typically believe in predestination. They don’t. But their ways of thinking about salvation still bear the stamp of Calvinism in many ways. And one of the most pernicious elements of Calvinism, in my opinion, is precisely this idea that you are supposed to be confident that you are among the elect. It creates a horrific double standard in which the sins of “believers” don’t really count while those of “unbelievers” do, and vice versa for virtues. I agree that the Catholic belief in the Church does often function in a similar way. I am speaking as someone who grew up in an intensely evangelical environment (Wesleyan Holiness surrounded by Baptists and their ilk) and more recently taught for seven years at an evangelical college.

            • Dave G.

              It’s there sure. The Protestant version of Superior by Catholic. But it is far less influenced across the board by an explicit Calvinist theology. Especially today. And it sure is not anything that leads to pride and hate any more than any other approach to the topic.

            • Dave G.

              BTW I have some experience in the Protestant and evangelical worlds too.

          • Dan C

            I certainly grew up with them. I am aware of their vision of salvation.

            Saying: you do not get them… Is based on what?

            I also dated an Evangelical who struggled with the likelihood of my certain damnation since I was not born again.

            But… They are reliably conservative and I am clearly not. I will say something so you can just deny and say the opposite to defend the movement.

            • Dave G.

              Because I was one. Oh, there is truth in what you say to be sure. Calvinism certainly had an impact in the day, less so today. But it is not the cause of fruits of hate or pride. No more than being Catholic can be. I’m sure there were some who were that way. There’s usually one in any group that is any way. My experience was that if you wanted to party, hang with Catholics. If you wanted to learn about God, hang with Protestants. In fact, we used to joke in college that if you wanted to get laid, don’t date religious girls. But Catholic girts were a good bet. Most of my Catholic friends agreed. That was my experience.

              But that’s not the same as what Catholics really believe, or how most act. Some Evangelicals? Any group can have anything represent it. But you know what? There is nothing inherently wrong with believing in hell any more than there is anything wrong believing in consequences. Nor is there anything that will cause bad fruits from that view any more than bad fruits can (and do) come from the other views about hell, or its possible emptiness.

              I spent more than a few days counseling people who had questions about eternity and salvation and damnation, and they were shockingly varied in their attitudes and questions. Believe it or not, most saw it as a horrible thing they desperately wanted to save people from. And that includes those from Reformed theological traditions!

              That’s my beef. Don’t cast that blanket too broadly. And don’t assume isolated experiences speak to everything. Heck, if I thought that, I’d have never become Catholic. And since I’ve been Catholic, I’m glad to find out just how isolated those bad examples I ran into all those years really were.

              • Dan C

                You are correct about Catholics. The clearest relative is extra ecclesia nulla salus which was adamantly maintained born of hate of Northern Irish Protestants by Irish Catholics. It is the cultic way of condemning the outsiders.

                • Dave G.

                  I think it is pretty much universal. My experience as a child from a family of blue collar Democrats turned liberal agnostic turned Evangelical Christian turned ordained Evangelical minister turned Catholic is that there is no shortage of bad apples in any group. And anything, no matter how true, can be warped, or at least badly represented. If I want to find bad apples, I’ll find them. Likewise, if I want to find good apples, I’ll usually find them, too. For me? I prefer to look for the good apples.

              • wineinthewater

                I think one of the difficulties with talking about Protestantism (well, post-Protestant non-Catholic Christianity really) is that you can *only* paint with a narrow brush really. There is such diversity, such factionaility, that it is difficult to say much that broadly applies. This is especially true since the collapse of Mainline Protestantism.

                For example, I’ve often experienced a non-denominational Evangelicalism express itself in a very permissive culture about sin. To them, it didn’t matter what they did as long as they were “saved.” So for example, the same guy preparing to be a youth pastor was also an unrepentant man-slut. When I met my wife, she found this astounding. All the non-denominational Evangelicals she knew lived with a very strong culture of purity. Our experiences were both valid, the problem was that although both of these groups would check the same box on a census, they were very different.

      • Dan C

        As far as the “few will be saved ” theory, it’s relative was “only Catholics are saved.” This was particularly held by generations of Irish Catholics. It was comforting for them when dealing with and thinking of the Protestants of Ireland.

    • Edwin Woodruff Tait

      To be fair, Catholics I’ve encountered (mostly online) who thought “few will be saved” were genuinely tormented by the idea that they might not be among the “few.” So I don’t think the Catholic version of “few will be saved” is as conducive to presumption as the Protestant version.

      • Athelstane

        Such has been my experience as well.

        But perhaps I don’t get out enough.

    • capaxdei

      Some people never doubt that they are among the few saved.

      Some people are moved to work out their salvation in fear and trembling when they consider that few are saved.

      The former doesn’t disprove “few are saved.” The latter doesn’t prove it. Neither, in fact, constitutes an argument for or against it.

  • Fr Baron bounces back and forth between saying hell is sparsely populated and hell is empty. Those are hugely different positions. One would be a pleasant surprise. Nothing about what I observe in society leads me to believe most are saved but if that turns out to be the case I would be glad.

    The other would produce a ton of logical contradictions. Nobody in hell means Catholic teaching is simply false. Sacraments and repentance do not increase you chance of salvation at all. Mortal sin does not decrease your chances of salvation at all. That is not what the church has said.

    Fr Barron often gets around the contradictions in the empty hell scenario by flipping to the sparsely populated hell scenario. It is a bit of a slippery position. Not really worthy of a respected Catholic theologian.

    Of course a sparsely populated hell gets you around none of the questions about the justice of hell. If anyone is there then you have to defend it. So theologically the numbers don’t matter unless you argue that the number in hell is zero and justice demands it be zero.

    • HornOrSilk

      No. Fr. Baron and others are saying hell COULD be densely populated, sparsely populated, or empty of human souls. We do not know. We hope for the salvation of all. Hope is not saying it will happen. We do not know this end of the judgment. We do know the potential of hell is real. The fact that people are making strawmen (like you do) show you really are not interested in accurately discussing the issue. Especially since you ASSUME Catholic teaching to say “someone is in hell,” when it does not.

      • Irksome1

        What sort of hope is it that hopes for an empty Hell? Is it the same Hope that is a Gift of the Holy Spirit? If it is, why would we expect this hope to fail or be false? If it isn’t, that is, doesn’t proceed from God but merely from ourselves, isn’t it really just impotent sentimentality?

        • Fr. Denis Lemieux

          Well, here’s how I reason through it. In the case of any individual–any at all–we can say of that person ‘there is a hope that this person is saved.’ No matter what we may know of that person’s sinful choices in their life, we do not know how they will/did end their life, in terms of final repentance.
          That being said, it is a matter of logic that we can hope that any one individual is saved, we can hope that every one is saved. Hope is the operative word – we truly do not know the final disposition of any individual. But it seems strictly logical that if any can be saved, then all could be saved.
          But we are only saved by repentance, conversion, faith, and the blood of Christ.
          This is not the theological virtue of hope, as I understand it, which is virtue residing in the graced will of the individual in a state of sanctifying grace by which they habitually fix their will upon God in the hope of eternal beatitude in Him.
          The hope of universal salvation is a natural hope – that is, a reasonable expectation of an uncertain, difficult good that is not yet ours but is possible.

          Anyhow, that’s my take on it, but it is strictly a matter of my personal opinion, which I believe does not contradict any Church doctrine.

          • capaxdei

            I agree that the sort of inductive hope you describe is not an instance of the virtue, or of the gift, of hope.

            I’d add that it’s only indirectly a natural hope, since properly speaking hope is about a future good. We do say things like, “I hope you had a good weekend,” but we aren’t really expressing hope — what happened last weekend isn’t a matter of hope — so much as well-wishing or benevolence.

            And, obviously, the inductive hope that all are saved involves the “hope” that all the dead — each of whom has undergone a personal judgment — *were* saved.

            The more you look at it, the less this “hope” looks like the hope of the Christian faith.

      • “We do know the potential of hell is real”

        What does that mean? If you are dealing with billions of people and suggesting maybe zero of them are in hell then how real can that potential be for you and me? If I am a rapist or a mass murderer I might have to worry a little but being a reasonably nice guy why should I take that potential seriously?

        “Especially since you ASSUME Catholic teaching to say “someone is in hell,” when it does not.”

        The Catholic church teaches that serious sin like adultery and apostasy can land you in hell. If hell is empty then it what sense is that teaching true? It is not like nobody commits adultery or apostasy.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          The Church teaches that if you commit mortal sin with full knowledge and deliberate consent, and do not repent, you will go to hell. What we don’t know is whether anyone will fulfill those conditions. I’d like to see your evidence for Fr. Barron “bouncing back and forth.” I don’t know that he has ever said that hell is empty. I think you’re confused because you seem to have trouble with the difference between saying something could be true and saying it is true.

          • “The Church teaches that if you commit mortal sin with full knowledge and deliberate consent, and do not repent, you will go to hell. What we don’t know is whether anyone will fulfill those conditions.”

            If nobody fill these conditions then why teach this at all? If the conditions of knowledge and consent are so hard to meet that no human has ever met them then the teaching of the church is just a joke.

            “you seem to have trouble with the difference between saying something could be true and saying it is true”

            I think it is Fr Barron and von Balthasaar that have the issue. Their thinking is very muddled. Trying to hide behind a future conditional does not work. Either hell will be empty or it won’t be. If it will be empty then universalism is true and Catholicism is false. This is the law of excluded middle. Statements are either true or false. If they can’t be true they must be false and vice-versa. Whether we know they are true or false is irrelevant to whether they are true or false. There is lots of confusion being generated but logic does not let you have it both ways. Either you believe universalism is heresy and cannot be true or you don’t.

            • Dan C

              Universalism presumed Hell is empty. Hoping it isn’t is acceptable. One binds God to human theories and linear logic just as much by asserting Hell HAS to have some folks in it as much as Universalism presupposes no capacity for damnation.

              God does not need our insistences on our theories of justice. Or mercy.

              There exist possibilities and as such hope .

            • chezami

              Saying “We don’t know if anybody will fulfill these conditions” is not the same as saying, “We know nobody will fulfill these conditions.”

              • That is just hiding behind imperfect knowledge. If nobody fulfills the conditions despite the huge number and diversity of the human population then the whole teaching is very misleading and has done humanity serious harm. If you want to say that might be true about the Catholic church that is up to you. I prefer to believe that the body of Christ could not possibly be guilt of such a thing.

                • Benjamin2.0

                  That is just hiding behind imperfect knowledge.

                  It’s acknowledging imperfect knowledge. Catholic doctrine already admits of its existence and consequences. The fact that the vast majority of people are moral idiots (just try talking to one) makes this one of the strongest arguments for low-population Hell. Your dismissive rhetoric is undeserved.

                  If nobody fulfills the conditions despite the huge number and diversity of the human population then the whole teaching is very misleading and has done humanity serious harm.

                  Harm? Misleading? If (1.) it is true that Hell is the destination of all who deliberately live in sin, (2.) that a large multinational corporate entity warns of this potential outcome, and (3.) it is found in the end that nobody is in Hell, then there are two possible conclusions: Either (1*.) the warning was a waste of time, as you say, or (2*.) the warning was hugely effective (the very opposite of harmful or misleading (Jonah’s work in Nineveh cannot be described by either of these words, for example)).

                  I tend not to give much credit to the empty or nearly empty Hell possibilities, but I don’t merely dismiss them out of an unwillingness to follow their arguments. I’d appreciate it if you represented my opinions with a little more respect.

                  • A false warning is harmful because it is a lie. God is not in the business of lying.

                    Could the warning be hugely effective? It could not be 100% effective. So many ignore it. If those ignoring the warning have exactly the same result as those who do not then it is not at all effective.

                    Jonah? I actually thing the account that 100% of the people repented to be the strongest evidence the story is not historical. In a large city you never get 100%.

          • Athelstane

            Fr Barron has never, to my knowledge, said that hell is empty.

            He has stated some agreement with Balthasar’s argument that hell *could* be empty. But that is also problematic, as it conflicts with a number of dogmatic statements by the Church, including Trent and Florence.

            The Church has never defined the population of hell, or detailed which souls go there (beyond, say, Judas). But it has repeatedly affirmed that hell is a real place, and that souls really can and do go there. Beyond that, there is certainly room for speculation, though it might not always be healthy.

        • Andy

          You seem to be ignoring the power of God’s forgiveness and the willingness he has to accept our efforts at repentance in the best light. We have no way of knowing if a person repents at that moment of death or not.

        • Dan C

          From Ratzinger :

          “Yet if we are honest, we will have to admit that this is not our problem at all. The question we have to face is not that of whether other people can be saved and how. We are convinced that God is able to do this with or without our theories, with or without our perspicacity, and that we do not need to help him do it with our cogitations. The question that really troubles us is not in the least concerned with whether and how God manages to save others.
          The question that torments us is, much rather, that of why it is still actually necessary for us to carry out the whole ministry of the Christian faith—why, if there are so many other ways to heaven and to salvation, should it still be demanded of us that we bear, day by day, the whole burden of ecclesiastical dogma and ecclesiastical ethics?”


          • Actually this is not the issue. Ratzinger is talking about something else here. He is discussing salvation outside the visible church. The question here is whether salvation is even a word that belongs in Catholicism. If everyone is saved then salvation is not worth talking about. When people asked Peter, “What shall we do to be saved?” then answer should have been “Nothing!” But he did not say that. He said, “Repent and be baptized!” Why? Is salvation even a thing or is the only question about what is the most comfortable road to heaven.

            • Dan C

              No. You 100% missed Ratzinger’s point. 100%.

              Here is where he dismisses all the questions:

              We are convinced that God is able to do this with or without our theories, with or without our perspicacity, and that we do not need to help him do it with our cogitations.”

              With far more eloquence, he proceeds to describe the parable of the workers in the field and how we behave like the one’s beginning work at the day’s start and complaining about receiving the same wage as those at the end of the day.

              He goes on to discuss how the spiritual unemployment is worse.

              His discussion is 100% relevant. Because of what he dissects as the meaning of these questions.

  • Mike Blackadder

    This is a great read Mark and excellent commentary. I love the section from Pope Benedict which I hadn’t seen before. I really like Father Baron (I’ve never heard of Ralph Martin before), and I think you’re right that it’s a strange thing to suggest that Fr Baron is a laissez-sin influence in the church when he is particularly vocal and particularly committed to evangelization. What calls him to this commitment of evangelization if it isn’t an acute concern for salvation?

    I didn’t realize that Church dogma made no claims regarding whether there are ANY souls in hell. We know that there are souls in heaven I presume. Certainly there is dogma regarding mortal sin and that dying in a state of mortal sin brings condemnation against us. At the same time I suppose we return to the same problem in establishing whether an individual has died in a state of mortal sin (what about suicide though?). The standard for mortal sin is also ambiguous to a degree; having full knowledge of the gravity of sin, having adequate faculties to be responsible for the act, and whether an individual was forgiven their sins through perfect contrition, etc.

    My feeling is that despairing about a predestination of damnation is a somewhat separate condition from the recognition that there is NO HOPE for those who have passed from this world outside the friendship of Christ. Hoping that ALL will somehow be saved seems to verge on absurdity and maybe suggests that we don’t take seriously the fullness of the message that Jesus brought to us.

    • Dan C

      Saints are the souls in Heaven the Church declares without error.

  • Jim PV

    Great stuff, Mark. Thank you for this!