FROM THE PRESIDENT'S KITCHEN TABLE
Americans love their freedom to choose. Whether it’s the “beer with gusto,” the “choosy mom’s” peanut butter, or even alternative lifestyles; they want the “right” to make the choice for themselves. Many Americans, even Catholics, echo the mantra: “I’m the captain of my fate; nobody can tell me what to do or judge my actions.” In the end, however, only one choice matters: heaven or hell. Life is a test with one question: Where do you want to spend eternity? Mark heaven and take the salvation course, a humble brown bag filled with the Ten Commandments, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, Holy Scripture, and the laws of the Church. Select hell and take the damnation course, a beautifully wrapped package stuffed to the brim with the seven deadly sins and all manner of sensual vice and wickedness. Of course, no one checks the hell box on the test; he’d be insane! But many choose the damnation course seduced by its fancy wrapping. “No need to worry,” they reason. After all, they checked the heaven box on the test. God’s an easy professor; he’ll ignore the course content. In the end everybody gets an A. Hell may exist, but no one’s there. God wouldn’t be so mean.
People go to hell
St. Ignatius of Loyola
Around 1574 St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, delivered a sermon on “Hell and Its Torments” at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He lamented the “torpor” that led people to presume salvation and “flatter” themselves about the “benevolence and kindness of God.” Reading St. Robert’s treatise dispels the delusion that 1) hell does not exist, 2) hell is empty, and 3) hell’s sufferings are trivial. Rather, he tells us, “The loss of the Highest Good carries with it the loss of all other good things. What does this mean? Simply that the eyes of the damned shall never again perceive any beautiful sight, nor their ears any sweet singing, nor their sense of taste any joyful savor, nor their sense of touch any gentle thing.” Instead, the eyes will see the “horrendous forms of demons” and the ears will hear “nothing but groans, bellowing, cryings, contumelies, blasphemies and curses.”
Think of the worst sights and sounds on earth: piles of bodies at Dachau, images of headless U.S. soldiers dragged through the streets of Somalia, smoke and fire billowing from the Twin Towers, the roar of their collapse, the stench of crematoriums, the pain of being flayed alive. St. Robert reminded his audience of horrible events in his own day and told them these are nothing compared to the pains of hell.
So why aren’t our shepherds warning us? Is it because we are so good? Hardly! Is it because hell is an unpleasant subject? Maybe. Is it because they are afraid it will affect donations to the parish? I hope not! Whatever reason, one can only lament the failure. We are all in danger of hell fire and better remember it. Sin, even venial sin, nailed Christ to the cross. Deadly sin kills grace in the soul; even small sins weaken our spiritual muscle making us prone to greater ones. Shepherds must remind us often to repent and frequent the sacraments for the sake of our salvation.
I suspect the main reason we hear so little about hell is human respect. Many Catholics sitting in the pew: 1) contracept, 2) live together without benefit of marriage, 3) are divorced and remarried without annulment, 4) hold views opposed to Church teaching, 5) publicly scandalize by making those views known, or 6) take Communion in the state of mortal sin. (Check off the items that apply to pro-abortion politicians.) It is much easier for shepherds to preach sweetness and light than risk upsetting parishioners who may 1) get up and leave before the collection or 2) read Father the riot act after Mass.
A third reason for silence may be a misguided desire for “unity” in the parish. The great theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German ex-patriot whom the Nazis sentenced to death in absentia after he fled the country, knew all about false unity. In his essay, The Charitable Anathema, he tells this story:
Von Hildebrand believed there was only one way to restore unity among Christians: “the time-honored way: the anathema [excommunication] against all heretics. This is the way the Church has survived, kept her identity, through all centuries.” He called it “an act of the greatest charity toward all the faithful, comparable to preventing a dangerous disease from infecting innumerable people.” We have a duty of charity toward all, even the heretic, he said; but unity belongs to those who are of one mind and heart in the Lord. It “can come to pass only in the profession of divine truth.” What he called “pseudo-unity” can be foolish or even worse, “a sinister force when it is based not on a lack of principle, but on a common error – on an idol.” One can be in unity with the devil. Such, he said, were “so many young Germans (who) gave their lives in the war while screaming, ‘Heil Hitler!’”
Let us never forget the reality of hell, but keep it before our eyes as a vaccination against sin. We would do well to imitate the action of St. Francis Borgia, an early Vicar General of the Jesuits. Every day when he examined his conscience he placed himself in hell in his imagination. Then he asked, “My soul, what have you done today to land you in this place?” He obviously knew only one choice matters in the end, heaven or hell. Catholics would do well to imitate him.