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.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.
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.
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?