Monday, 28 January 2013

Hope in hell?

In The Catholic Herald dated 25 January I published a letter in response to an article by Piers Paul Read, a Catholic novelist I admire very much. The text of the letter follows.

The article by Piers Paul Read drawing attention to a recent book by Ralph Martin (Charterhouse, 18 January) requires a response. He may be right in saying that seriousness of the call to repentance and the need to save have been downplayed in recent Catholic teaching. The result was a faith that challenged no one, and quickly lost its grip on the conscience, destroying the raison d’etre of the missions. Martin blames all this on the teaching of two twentieth-century theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that God will not in the end let anyone enter a state of eternal damnation. Read concludes, "A riddle remains. Why, if Martin's critique is correct, has the teaching on salvation of Rahner and Balthasar not been condemned by the Church?"

The answer to this riddle is simple. Martin’s critique is not correct. I will focus mainly on Hans Urs von Balthasar, though it is worth noting that Rahner and Balthasar were by no means saying the same thing, and should not be lumped together. Balthasar made a strenuous critique of Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian”.

For his own part, Balthasar definitely does not say that we should assume that no one is in hell. In fact he argues against that position. He does argue – citing an enormous range of supporting texts from the magisterium, the Church fathers, the saints and doctors of the Church – that we must hope for the salvation of all. But this is exactly what the Catechism says. Right after affirming the existence of hell (as Balthasar does), in the words, “Hell’s principle punishment consists of eternal separation from God” (1057), the Catechism adds: “The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26)” (1058).

There are certainly many who are heading towards hell. Many of us experience this in life, and for them the Church offers the hand of salvation. We will not be saved unless we grasp that hand with our own will. But the moment of death is a mysterious thing. Which of us can claim to understand what may happen when time comes to an end and we are gathered up into eternity, seeing for the first time clearly the reality of our sins? Then at the uttermost limits of our own despair, we shall see God crucified by those sins, but we must surely hope that especially then we will be supported by the prayers of the saints – including those who refuse to give up on us just because our name was Genghis Khan or Mrs Thatcher (names proposed by Mr Read)?

Piers Paul Read asks for clear statement on what we must do, or not do, to be saved. Balthasar’s answer fills many heavy tomes, it is true, but it all boils down to the faith of a child – that we must love God with all our strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. As for evangelization, the teaching on hell and the teaching on hope belong together, and to lose one or the other is to dissolve the Gospel.

For those who want to pursue this topic further there were some earlier discussions in our Forum pages, here, here, and here. See also an earlier article by Stratford and Leonie Caldecott called "Balthasar and the Problem of Hell".

Friday, 25 January 2013

Lady of the Mystery

Mother of the Lord, Lady of the Mystery,
Lady of hope, clothed in the sapphire of the night,
Lady with three stars on thy mantle,
Holy anchor of our aspirations,
Here am I, before thee once again,
Wasted by the tumult of the world, a slave to my thoughts,
After receiving my spiritual father's counsel and blessing,
I set upon the path of my salvation,
Furnished with the holy resolve to compel myself to unceasing prayer.
But my thought, earthly idol, allows me no occasion
To establish myself in a state of prayer, in the place of God,
There in my heart of hearts, towards which I strain.
Help me also, O thou my Protectress,
Strengthen me in the incessant invocation,
Come to my aid and I will chant to thee:

Rejoice, Strength of virginity, true soul of the world!
Rejoice, sanctified body, Place which contains God!
Rejoice, Holy of Holies, secret place at the heart's core!
Rejoice, spiritual Treasure enclosed in the spirit of the humble!
Rejoice, sure Gift of all the ineffable virtues!
Rejoice, golden Censer from which rises pure prayer without cease!
Rejoice, Oneness of Mind of all the reconciled churches!
Rejoice, Lightning illumining the souls of the faithful!
Rejoice, unceasing Help, even of those hardened in sin!
Rejoice, protective Mantle over our weakness!
Rejoice, O Bride, Mother of continual prayer!

From Akathist to the Mother of God of the Burning Bush, by Romanian New-Martyr Fr Daniel (Santu Tudor). Ikos VIII.