Sunday, 8 April 2018

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 767 8 April 18 HELL AND THE POPE


‘The Pope abolishes Hell’, the media claimed. Not quite. According to atheist, geriatric Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari Francis said so in private, so it can’t be verified. The Vatican rushed to deny it but not the Pope himself. ‘That’s a lie! Hell is real!’ he could have corrected. He didn’t. That figures. Francis’ reported utterances often resemble President Trump’s tweets. Outrageous, provocative and rule-breaking. Like a mischievous Zen Master. Or Jesus, perhaps? Still, could a Pope officially kick hell upstairs, if he wanted? Nope. He couldn’t. What’s got the hacks worked up, however, is the word ‘punishment’. The bad souls do not suffer in hell, they just disappear, Francis apparently confided.

Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy will know the vast panoply of sufferings the damned souls undergo, in proportion to their crimes. Thieves are bitten by reptiles, hypocrites stoop under heavy cloaks lined with iron and gays run furiously around, frustratingly pursuing young men. Dante’s poetic imagination, just that. More theologically, the Bible mentions Hell as place of fire and its torments. Or of darkness, where men will weep and gnash their teeth’. The Qur’an is more forthright: the sinners’ garments are of liquid pitch, some must swallow boiling water, their roasted skins falling off only to be replaced by new ones and that repeated, again and again. Such chastisements have a strong deterrent quality but, as the ex-Christian West no longer believes in torture or the death penalty, it is logical a full-bloodied notion of Hell appears passé. That is why some feeble-minded liberals have applauded Francis’ revisionism. Only the gutter press retains hell as a digital anathema. When Thomas
Hamilton’s cremation took place, after having massacred 16 primary school children at Dunblane in Scotland, the Sun newspaper’s headline gloated: ‘Monster burns in hell’. A state of misery for the wicked still has popular appeal, eh?

To approach more spiritual understandings of divine punishment, you may perhaps look at mystics. ‘Nothing burns in hell except self-will, the ego’, says the Theologia Germanica, a book much admired by Martin Luther. ‘Put off your own will and there will no hell’, God is very willing to help a sinner and bring him to what is best in himself…but to this end all self-will must depart’, says the writer. Some theologians, though accepting the notion of hellfire, have denied that burning is eternal. So Origen of Alexandria taught that in end all sinners will be redeemed, even the Devil. Maybe Francis’ next ploy will give Satan a chance, who knows? Even the Emperor of the kingdom of darkness has its fans, in this ludicrous and corrupt age of ours.

One of the most fatuous, humanistic and bogus definitions of Hell comes from existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. In the somewhat tedious short play’ Huis Clos (No Exit), a character asserts that ‘Hell is other people’. A dark, misanthropic remark. One which contradicts the ancient wisdom: ‘Man is being whose nature is to live in society’. Not even savages can exist without their fellows. Language itself, which distinguishes men from beasts, is a collective, public endeavour. Other people can indeed be irksome, bad or stupid, but they are potentially paradise, not hell. Sartre was a mean, nasty man – perhaps Hell would have consisted in being stuck in a lift with him.

Can a Pope err? Papal pronouncements come in a graded, hierarchical scale. At the top there is infallibility. Statements issued ex-cathedra, in his capacity of supreme teacher of the Catholic faith and morals. As guardian of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from the Apostle and sanctioned by Church councils. However, if Francis looked out of a Vatican window and opined: ‘It’s going to rain’, that would not be bound to happen, nor would a Catholic obliged to believe it true.

Similarly, scientific theories and empirical experiments do not fall under the ‘infallibility’ rubric, although the Pope can warn the faithful of the dire ethical implications of a biotechnology like DNA hacking, for example. Since in 1870 the First Vatican Council proclaimed that the Pope cannot state the false, the Pontiff has used his infallible authority officially only twice. In asserting the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, body and soul. Protestants reject both, because un-biblical, but then Catholic theology does not rely on the Bible alone but also on sacred Tradition and that can justify them. Catholics must believe the two new dogmas as part of their religion, on pain of heresy. Canceling a key doctrine hallowed by sacred tradition, like Hell and its punishments, is wholly different. Here the Pope would not be adding to the Faith but subtracting from it. A grave matter.

What if Francis really intended to tell Scalfari that Hell does not exist? Alas, he would have negated not just the Catholic Catechism (Hell is a place of ‘eternal fire’) but also the Apostles’ Creed. A concise formulation of Christian doctrine which candidates for baptism, admission into the body of Christ, must subscribe to. The Creed states that Christ after his death on the Cross, ‘descended into Hell’ to liberate the souls of the righteous. Without Christ’s redemptive coming, Adam and Eve, Moses, David, Solomon and others could not have been let into Paradise. So, abolishing the salutary doctrine of Hell would strike at the heart of Christian credal belief.

Could a Pope be a heretic? How then would you deal with him? When Cyril Lucaris, Patriarch of Constantinople, turned Calvinist, his church reported him to the Turkish government for treason. He was hanged. Maybe a hint there?

Like President Trump, this Pope is not very bright, I fear. He keeps confusing his flock. His opinions strike sparks but he ought to be careful. The sparks could set off a fire to engulf the Pontiff himself.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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