It's always a bit amusing (and, yes, annoying) when people—specifically, media types—get bent out of shape because the Pope articulates, defends, or preaches about this or that Catholic doctrine or dogma. The most recent example is Hell, which Benedict XVI spoke about this past weekend while celebrating Mass at the Parish of St. Felicity and Martyred Sons in the Diocese of Rome (the homily is currently available in Italian only on the Vatican website).
The New York Post featured the breathtaking headline: "POPE PROCLAIMS HELL 'EXISTS AND IS ETERNAL'", and stated, "Hell is a place where sinners burn in an eternal fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful, the Pope has said." Hey, nothing against galvanising, but let's be honest: if hell is merely symbolic (that is, if it doesn't exist, which is what the descriptive "symbolic" means here), exactly how much of a stimulation to spiritual reflection might it be? If your guess is "little to none," I'd say you're on the right track. The Post also says:
Vatican officials said that the Pope - who is also the Bishop of Rome - had been speaking in "straightfoward" language "like a parish priest." He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that Hell is a "state of eternal separation from God," to be understood "symbolically rather than physically."
This didn't sound quite right to me, so I took a look. Nope, the Catechism never talks about Hell as being symbolic, but instead insists on the reality of Hell:
Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. (CCC 1034-36)
Rather than soften (distort?) the Pope's remarks, the Scotsman takes the "He's a jerk!" approach to the story:
POPE BENEDICT XVI has reiterated the existence of Hell and condemned society for not talking about eternal damnation enough.
A furious Pope Benedict unleashed a bitter attack during a sermon while on a visit to a parish church and said: "Hell exists and there is eternal punishment for those who sin and do not repent."
Sounding "more of a parish priest than a Pope" the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics added: "The problem today is society does not talk about Hell. It's as if it did not exist, but it does."
Pope Benedict unleashed his fury during a visit to the tiny parish church of St Felicity and the Martyr Children at Fidene on the outskirts of Rome, in his capacity as bishop of the Italian capital.
One churchgoer said: "The Holy Father was really having a go. It was a typical fire-and-brimstone sermon that you would have expected from a parish priest years ago."
That is a helpful qualification ("years ago") since my guess is that most Catholics rarely hear homilies (or even of homilies) that directly broach the topic of Hell. And did the Pope really "condemn society" for not talking about Hell enough? Was he really bitter? And filled with fury? Something tells me that the folks at the Scotsman are editorializing a wee bit, since this not only doesn't sound like Benedict, it doesn't fit the English excerpts of the homily, which emphasize the love of Jesus, as well as the free will of man, who is never coerced by God, but able to reject communion with Him:
Using the Gospel reading of John where Jesus saves the adulterous woman from death by stoning by saying "let he who is without sin to cast the first stone", Pope Benedict said: "This reading shows us that Christ wants to save souls. He is saying that He wants us in Paradise with Him but He is saying that those who close their hearts to Him will be condemned to eternal damnation.
"Only God's love can change from within the existence of the person and, consequently, the existence of every society, because only His infinite love liberates from sin, the root of every evil."
That same love is reflected in the sacrifice of Christ, who came with the concrete goal of saving souls, he added.
And, from ZENIT:
"Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.
"Therefore even in this episode, we understand that our true enemy is our attachment to sin, which can lead us to failing our existence."
However, The London Times understands that, in a sense, the Pope's homily is hardly "news", as though he has something new and unheard of:
“Pope says Hell exists” is the sort of headline you might expect to see in a list of similarly self-evident truths; alongside, say, “The Sun is very hot”...
But, not surprisingly, this is treated as yet more evidence of how out of touch and fearful Benedict is:
The Pope is evidently rattled that people today are not as fearful as they ought to be of ending up in Hell, prompting his reminder to them that if they fail to “admit blame and promise to sin no more” they risk “eternal damnation”.
I'd say that The Times is evidently trying to ignore what Benedict is saying, which may or may not reflect how rattled they are by the possibility that Hell is real. If only one could get paid for every time a reporter or pundit tries to sweep away an uncomfortable proposition by immediately painting the proposer as "rattled," "afraid," "old fashioned," and so forth, a common and dreary example of ad hominem abusive. And, by the way, anyone who has seriously read Ratzinger/B16 knows how unrattled he is in the face of addressing modern and post-modern skepticism. So, for example, when he writes of Hell in Introduction to Christianity, he refers to the thought of Sartre and Herman Hesse. Likewise, he engages with Sartre again in Truth and Tolerance in discussing freedom and damnation. And in Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, he critiques Hegel while remarking upon the reality of Hell.
In his excellent essay, "Hell," contained in Hell and Other Destinations (Ignatius Press, 2006), Piers Paul Read remarks insightfully on the unpopular status of damnation:
While Pascal's contemporary, René Descartes, made the philosophical lbservation 'I think therefore I am', Pascal would have us say: 'I believe therefore I am forever'. The last item of the Apostles' Creed, life everlasting, is by no means the least because, as Ronald Knox pointed out, 'once a man or woman has attained the age of reason he is bound for one of two ultimate destinies, fixed and eternal - hell or heaven; and this is true even of those myriads of souls which have never had the opportunity or never had full opportunity, to hear the Christian message preached.' (2)
Knox also warned his readers, in the late 1920s, that 'the prevalent irreligion of the age does exercise a continual unconscious pressure upon the pulpit; it makes preachers hesitate to affirm doctrines whose affirmation would be unpopular. And a doctrine which has ceased to be affirmed is doomed, like a disused organ, to atrophy.' As early as 1915 George Bernard Shaw wrote in the Preface to his play Androcles and the Lion that 'belief in . . . hell is fast vanishing. All the leaders of thoughts have lost it; and even for the rank and file it has fled to those parts of Ireland and Scotland which are still in the XVII century.' 'Even there,' he added, 'it is tacitly reserved for the other fellow.' (3)
To insist that some of us may be damned inevitably makes a Christian apologist unpopular: it is something horrible to contemplate and therefore best pushed to the back of the mind or even out of the mind altogether. A belief in damnation is deemed unsophisticated and 'fundamentalist' - viz. not something that could be taken seriously by a contemporary Christian outside Ireland and Scotland, as Shaw said, or - we might now add - the Bible Belt in the United States. Each man is entitled to his opinion and one is as good as another. To suggest that one set of beliefs or mode of behaviour is better than another is deemed 'judgemental'; and while it is right to warn that smoking will cause the death of the body, it is intolerable to point to sins that might lead to the death of the soul.
Read the entire essay here. Other IgnatiusInsight.com pieces on Hell: