Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fear o' Hell: John Casey on the Biggest Change in the Catholic Church

Militant and Triumphant. No nonsense in Boston, 1943 (my mother, top-row, far-right)

I noticed the cover article in Time magazine this week - Is Hell Dead? It's about a book by evangelical pastor Bob Bell called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Its universalist message isn't going down well with many of the other well-known preachers in the evangelical community. As for my own community, it just might.

A priest in my parish has been heard to say, "There are things that are important, and there are things that are only important on the internet." He would certainly know, as he himself is the subject of a rather strange blog that is uniquely dedicated to "exposing" him.

He's right, of course. Looking at the Catholic blogosphere you would think that the most important issue gripping the Church today is the reception of Summorum Pontificum and the availability of the Tridentine Mass. It's either that, or tales of liturgical abuse, as if every parish in the nation was inundated by wymyn-priests in clown wigs liturgically prancing across our altars every Sunday.

In your average parish, however, day-in and day-out, these issues are practically unheard of and count for nothing. Vatican II did usher in great changes, and I don't mean to totally underplay the impact of the changes in the liturgy, but I don't think that was where the biggest change in the life of the Church occurred. As I've said here before, my own catechesis was a combination of what was presented in the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church. The council occurred during my childhood, and it took a while for things to change at the local parish level in any event. My training for my First Confession (before they called it Reconciliation) and First Communion were decidedly pre-conciliar. It was pretty tough stuff. Things changed significantly later.

During the 60's there were enormous changes in the role of women and young people in society. The introduction of the birth control pill changed the trajectory of human society more than any technological innovation that I can think of, and that's saying something. In the wake of the Viet-Nam War, the assassinations, and Watergate, there was an enormous loss of public trust, and authorities were not held in the same unquestioning esteem as they were before. Some would say Humanae Vitae had the same effect on the Church. As society changed, the life of the Church changed as well. Fr Andrew Greeley likes to say that The “Catholic Revolution” lasted most generously from 1965 to 1974, but was more accurately within the period from 1966 to 1970. In my own experience, I'd put if from 1968 to 1972. In my view, the world was one way before the pivotal year of 1968 and was completely transformed by the time 1972 came along. For all the sturm and drang over litugy, or Humanae Vitae, the role of the laity, the crash in the number of vocations, or whatever hot topic we want to bring up, it doesn't touch what the biggest difference is. Some traditionalists do like to mention it, and in at least this much they aren't wrong...

The biggest difference I can see, is that in the pre-conciliar Church, before 1968 or so, Catholics were deathly afraid of going to hell.

Hell was mostly what you heard about in Catholicism. It was a fire-and-brimstone church.

In the post-conciliar period, for whatever reason, after 1972 or so, nobody talked about hell anymore and nobody was afraid of going there. Well, perhaps I can amend that... They were no longer interested in hearing any priest telling them that they were going there.

I remember some people referring to themselves as "Recovering Catholics" a few years back. If they still do, well, I'm sorry. With the very important exception of people who've suffered from sexual abuse (I ignore that by no means), if you are under the age of 45, you haven't got much to recover from. You never got hit with the brimstone like we did.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University scholar John Casey wrote a book called After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In the introduction he summed up this sea-change in his own Catholic Church quite succinctly.
Beliefs held almost without question for centuries, and enforced by the authority of venerable institutions, can unpredictably evaporate.

For almost nineteen centuries the great majority of Christians had accepted, even embraced fervently, certain doctrines about man's final end.

These beliefs were at the center of the Christian imagination. Among Protestants in Northern Europe there had been some dilution of belief among intellectuals and the growth of liberal theology; but this did not begin to affect the masses until the early twentieth century.

The Roman Catholic Church preserved the orthodox teaching on heaven and hell with energy and rigor until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), after which the deliquescence of serious belief in damnation (heaven remained an attractive, if vague, possibility) was astonishingly rapid. Although the doctrines remained officially in place, they were played down and lost most of the resonance they used to have with the faithful. It could be that the new model army of enthusiastically orthodox priests, which emerged during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), will eventually reconvert Roman Catholics to a lively terror of the possibility of damnation—but at the moment that seems unlikely. You will rarely meet a Catholic who believes (to use Browning's words) that God watches him "As he believes in fire that it will burn, / Or rain that it will drench him...”

Yet in the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth, people converted to Roman Catholicism in the conviction that by this means, and this only, could they save their immortal souls. Gerard Manley Hopkins was afraid that his favorite composer, Henry Purcell, was in hell because he was a heretic. Graham Green wrote novels in which damnation was the central them. A vivid assent to the reality of another world was everywhere to be found...

It is hard for modern Christians – at least in the West – to conceive how seriously all this was taken not much more than a generation ago… The integrity of the "deposit of faith" in the world of Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Stalin, and Hitler was preserved by an authoritarian, managerial discipline. That is why the valiant attempt of Rome to hold on to the ancient convictions is more striking than what happened in Protestantism.

It is also why the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council were also of great significance. For although that council did not formally change any articles of faith, it produced a climate in which some central doctrines seemed to lose their purchase on the Catholic imagination, shaped as it had been by the Counter-Reformation. The cultural change is still working itself out and its full implications may not be understood until many more years have passed. Before the council, many even among those who rejected the faith were profoundly colored by it. In the early twentieth century there were those brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition who both intimately and imaginatively understood the doctrines about the next life, but who found them so at variance with modem experience that they could only treat them with a profound — if not necessarily unsympathetic — irony.
I'll let individual readers discern on their own whether or not this was a good thing. It's my own opinion that the actual theology discussed and presented in the Vatican II documents was excellent theology - much better than the legalistic neo-scholastic manuals that were in use in the period just prior to that. Can the subsequent collapse be blamed on good theology? Maybe. Maybe a lot of people really do prefer motivation by fear - or prefer "religion" over real faith. That would be a shame if was really the case.

To stress God's love and mercy over the pain of hell was probably the right thing to do, the healthiest thing to do and the truest to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, in a materialistic, consumeristic society in which virtues have been largely forgotten, and the most elementary trust broken down between both individuals and groups, isn't it a tragedy that we've lost a collective sense of what sin is, and of our own sins?


Garpu said...

I kind of like Benedict's take, that logically he has to believe that there's a hell, but also that it's empty.

Hrm. I don't think it's an either/or situation. We can definitely have a loving and merciful God, but also be congizant of our own failings, using that loving God as an ideal, I think.

I also wonder if the social changes in the family have anything to do with the de-emphasis upon hell. Back in the 1950's, it was common to have the whole "father knows best." My generation? Not so much, although I think child-directed rearing is just as bad. (Who the hell asks a toddler anything?)

That isn't to say that there shouldn't be a healthy balance, but there should also be boundaries.

Jeff said...

Wow, hey Jen... I was still cleaning up typos on this one, it was still hot off the press when you posted!

Did Benedict really say that? I'm very suprised (and rather pleased) that he said this. Was that in article, speech, or book?

Hrm. I don't think it's an either/or situation. We can definitely have a loving and merciful God, but also be congizant of our own failings, using that loving God as an ideal, I think.

That's probably a healthier way to look at it. Maybe I shouldn't draw the link so directly between the two.

crystal said...

I think it's better now than before, and that negative reinforcement doesn't really work. Did the thought of going to hell stop all the bad people of the past from being bad, or did it just motivate them to rationalized tht what they were doing was actually good or at least ncessary?

I want to believe there is no hell at all, but I still worry that there might be and that I'll end up there :/

Clamburger said...

The author's name is Rob Bell. And he is a hot-button issue among Protestants.
One of the problems I think the church is facing is that at one time, it was acceptable for one person -especially a minister- to righteously rebuke another person -especially a layman.
I believe that the change of curriculum that Vatican II brought about, there also came a change in the fundamental paradigm the of Catholic laity: They were no longer being taught that hell was something that somebody else could burden a person with: that it was, for the most part, his own battle. It seems like a revival of the he so-called Spitirual Movement brought about by the Council of Trent and the Catholic Counter-Revolution of the mid-1500s, which emphasized the personal relationship with Christ over obedience to the church--which the clergy had, up until then, presented as the sole recourse for damnation.
Rather than believing that hell empty, maybe it would be better to believe that it is full of faceless people. ...That hell is well-inhabited, but that we don't know by whom.
Nevertheless, I do believe that reinforcement is problematic when it is purely positive. When parishioners are not reminded of hell in this life, they tend to forget about it--or else dismiss it as something that they do not have to worry about. They believe that if they are not being reprimanded or rebuked, then they are spiritually doing well, and that they therefore have nothing to worry about when they die. What may be the worst iteration of this is when people begin to believe that the best way to gauge if a person is a good Christian is to monitor their church attendance. "If John Q. Public is going to Mass," thinks the parish, "then he must be doing so in good conscience. And therefore, if he is going to Mass, then he must be saved." ...The same thing is believed by a lot of Protestants.

Jeff said...


I think it did help people to walk the straight and narrow, or "behave better," if you will, but at a heavy psychological cost. On the other hand, maybe that frequent examination of conscience that was required for confession really was a good. Maybe it helped people to grow.

As for your worries... Remember, saved by grace, through faith.

So many people have gone through hell in this life, sometimes another hell in an afterlife seems like needless piling on.

Jeff said...

Hi Clamburger,

Thank you very much for visiting and for posting. I offer prayers and wish you well on you conversion journey.

Yes, there has been a bit of controversy about Mars Hill concerning quite a few things right from the beginning, eh?

What you said about the exhortations and challenges that can be made to us by others reminds me of something that was once written by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, who said this about involvement in church life.

Without Church, we have more private fantasy than real faith. The individual in quest for God, however sincere, lives the unconfronted life. Real conversion demands that its recipients be involved in both the muck and grace of actual church life.

Church involvement does not leave us the option to walk away when something happens that we don’t like. It is a covenant commitment, like a marriage, and binds us for better or worse.

After joining a community, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.

Church community takes away from us our false freedom to soar unencumbered, like the birds, believing we are loving, mature, committed, and not blocking out things we should be seeing.

Real churchgoing shatters this illusion, and we find ourselves constantly humbled as our immaturities and lack of sensitivity to the pain of others are reflected off eyes that are honest and unblinking.

Garpu said...

Not sure? I think it was from an interview.

although in thinking about it, I wonder if part of that nastiness hasn't gone away--it's moved from ire towards traditionalist types immediately following Vatican II to the political football over the Eucharist that we're seeing today. I think it's a sign of humanity--not of God's kingdom--to exclude.

Mark said...

Isn't the real issue whether there is any "life" as we know it after our death. I think religion, and yes,Christianity is about 'quality' not 'quantity.'I think the quality issue is the essence of our religion. Paul

shera10 said...

On the contrary, Garpu.During Lent 2008 BXVI met the roman pastors. In the meeting he said "hell exist and ITSN'T empty"

I don't think he changed his views after the meting ;-)

Jeff you look like your mother a lot, you have the same smiling eyes.


shera10 said...

it was "hell exists and it ISN'T empty"

my english is every day worse...

Liam said...

"As if every parish in the nation was inundated by wymyn-priests in clown wigs liturgically prancing across our altars every Sunday."

-That nails it. I actually lay awake in bed every Saturday night, terrified about all the clown masses that will take place the next day.

You can't blame them. Clowns are scary.

I was just on the other side of the cusp. A slight smell of sulfer may have tinged part of my Catholic education, but for the most the worst I got was an amorphous though deep-seated guilt. One nun who taught in my high school said that she thought that hell was really nothing more (and nothing less) than the absence of God.

I think you are right about the loss of a sense of sin. That's one thing many conservatives complain about that I agree with in part -- though they tend to limit what someone should feel sinful about to a limited sphere of sexual activity. I do think that as a culture we can be too easy on ourselves.

One last random statement. I think it was Karl Rahner who said, "As a theologian, I cannot teach universal salvation. But I can hope for it.'

Jeff said...

I figure that a person's preference for either quantity or quality probably depends to a large degree on how much of each they've got behind them.

Cris, thank you. Your English is just fine, don't worry.

In the meeting he said "hell exists and ISN'T empty"

Haha. Now that's more in line with what I'd expect. Well, Jen... looks like we were too optimistic! :-)

Jeff said...


Yes, coulrophobia is more prevalent than people think!

I'm cringing over the day that the juggalos finally show up at my parish...

cowboyangel said...

In theory, placing an emphasis on agape love should make us less sinful, as we become more aware of our inter-connectedness with others and God and how our actions, thoughts and words affect other people, ourselves, the environment, etc. I don't think being afraid of Hell leads to unconditional love but only to a human/self-driven attempt to be "good" according to the norms of whatever little culture you happen to belong to at the time. Fear-based thinking leads to the opposite of agape love. It leads to protecting yourself and your immediate tribe against the OTHER. It cause fragmentation. We see it in our country a lot right now. Love conquers all fear.

Unfortunately, I don't think the Catholic Church or anyone else does a very good job of teaching us how to love. Except, perhaps, Christ himself. Love is incredibly difficult. And we don't get a lot of good examples. And when we do get good examples, we tend to fear them, because they require us to live differently. We crucified Jesus after all.

So, maybe - and I have no earthly idea - we removed an emphasis on Hell without really replacing it with an authentic teaching of how we are to love God with all our heart, soul strength and mind and love our neighbors as our selves. Who gets lessons in that? How do we learn to love ourselves in a healthy way? Why aren't we training in love on a daily basis? Because it's hard, I guess.

But I'm also not convinced that we've become more sinful as a country because of Vatican II, a shift in theology, some kind of social breakdown due to those blasted hippies, etc. I spend a lot of time reading newspapers from the 1860s, and I really don't see much difference in humanity's sinfulness in the last 150 years. Corruption, violence, greed, racial hatred, irrational fears, exploitation, lust, gluttony, sexual abuse... It's all there in black and white print from 1863. We were fighting an incredibly brutal civil war, after all, in part over whether or not people with darker skin could be used as slaves to help one group achieve economic success and maintain political power.

A lot of the "common brotherhood" from the past came about because white males dominated the society, not allowing women or people of color to be included in the "community." Perhaps, we are forced to deal with THE OTHER more now, I don't know. Or Hell really is other people, as Sartre said. We still demonize those who are different from us and look to protect our tribe and dominate those around us. Hell is the Arabs, the Mexicans, the Liberals, the Republicans, etc.

Je ne sais pas. All I know is that we are here to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. What will help us do that?

cowboyangel said...

Actually, clown masses with some nice guitars might bring more people to Church.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Thanks for those points.

So, maybe - and I have no earthly idea - we removed an emphasis on Hell without really replacing it with an authentic teaching of how we are to love God with all our heart, soul strength and mind and love our neighbors as our selves. Who gets lessons in that?

Well, honestly, I think the Catholic Church tried to, in the wake of Vatican II. They tried. Seriously. They tried... we tried. I know we tried when we taught Youth Ministry... I don't know if it was a case of ineffectiveness, contradictory signals, or if negative fear-based religion just "sells" better with people than an authentic message based on love does. I'd like to think it's not the latter point, but I suppose it's possible.