Avery Cardinal Dulles’ characteristically clear and comprehensive article “The Population of Hell” (May) brings home a concern that many of us share with even saintly people of the past. The question of the salvation of the apparent unbeliever or of the marginal—the publicans and the harlots who Christ says will enter the kingdom of heaven before us—is often a very personal one. Most of us have friends and relatives on or off the spiritual edge. Cardinal Dulles did not refer to one important aspect of this question, perhaps because he takes the approach of the theologian. There is something to be learned from the private revelations of the mystics, whose unusual experiences of the divine have been approved by the Church.
The source of information is, of course, uneven; it is also easily dismissed and therefore often overlooked. In our time one private revelation has received the highest possible ecclesiastical approval with the canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska, a humble Polish nun who left an interesting record of her encounters with Christ as the embodiment of Divine Mercy. She recorded experiencing symbolic conversations of the Merciful Savior with a variety of types: the fervent soul, the suffering soul, and finally the despairing soul. In a remarkable account, which includes an important reference to prevenient grace and which leaves the soul free to accept or reject salvation, St. Faustina describes how an apparently lost soul is called by Christ himself at the hour of death. I included this remarkable passage from St. Faustina’s Diary in my book The Cross at Ground Zero, and it proved to be an immense consolation to many who lost dear ones on 9/11.
Is it in totally bad taste to suggest that we might consider, partly on the basis of St. Faustina’s revelation, that there may be a final divine call to conversion at the hour of death? Could this be the meaning of the promise of salvation given to the good thief on his cross? He did not walk in the straight way or enter by the narrow gate, but we have it on the highest authority that he is not to be counted among the population of hell.
Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.
Bronx, New York
P. G. Wodehouse wrote of one of his characters that he could, with one look, open an oyster at sixty paces. With his article on hell, Avery Cardinal Dulles aims at showing that, theologically at least, he possesses the same ability. However, a gimlet eye cast over the Church’s tradition about hell is today no longer enough. Indeed it is precisely such cold-eyed impartiality when dealing with the concept of everlasting punishment, whether for the majority or the minority, that is for so many offensive and genuinely scandalous. Most people would be appalled, and surely rightly so, if Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein on being caught was sentenced to be tortured for the rest of his life. Yet it is everlasting torture of the most extreme type that even such recently canonized saints as St. Faustina Kowalska of the Divine Mercy speak about. As she reports after one of her visions, “Let the sinner know that he will be tortured for all eternity in those senses which caused him to sin.” To the so-called orthodox, this is not at all shocking; they can point to various Gospel passages that say something very similar. Our contemporaries, however, who revere such people as Nelson Mandela precisely because he forswore violence or punishment against those who imprisoned him for so long, will continue to fail to understand how Catholicism manages through its unquestioning acceptance of the concept of hell in its most primitive form to ensure that its God is made to seem in comparison a moral pygmy.
Newcastle on Tyne
The eternal torment speculation reminds one of the Greek myth about Alexander the Great. He wanted a chariot that was secured to a post by a knot, so intricately woven by Gordian that no man would ever be able to untie it and release the chariot. Alexander doesn’t try to untie it; he simply strikes it asunder with a stroke of his sword.
If He wills it, God can do anything He deems desirable. He is not only ultimate justice; He is also ultimate love and ultimate mercy. His power is totally unconstrained and, surely, unconstrainable in conformity to human logical reasoning. It is beyond our human capacity to define God’s nature in terms of irrevocable divine compulsions to do or refrain from doing anything conceivable relative to the human beings that He has created and loved. If He decides to strike asunder the tethers of damnation for some or all who otherwise are condemned to eternal torment, so will it be.
Edgar A. Jones, Jr.
Pacific Palisades, California
The doctrine of eternal hell is so patently unjust that it leads many to the opposite heresy of universalism. Avery Cardinal Dulles reviews this and other attempts to mitigate the doctrine of hell: perhaps fewer people are lost than theologians suspected, perhaps the damned may at some point be able to escape the pain of hell, perhaps the hell-fire statements of Scripture are only threats intended to warn people. He dismisses what I consider the best alternative, the biblical doctrine of annihilation.
According to Scripture the choice that God offers sinners is not between eternal life in heaven and eternal life in hell, but between life and death. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23); “. . . whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The prophet Malachi indicates that the fate of the wicked is annihilation. “For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3). Jesus said, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). (Cardinal Dulles incorrectly cites the passage as “punish soul and body in hell,” but the Greek apollumi unequivocally means destroy.)
But there are those troublesome “eternal” statements. What is “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41)? Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrha suffered “the vengeance of eternal fire.” Yet those cities are not still burning today. The fire produced eternal consequences. What is “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46)? Death without resurrection is eternal punishment. It is eternal exclusion from life with God. This does not mean hellfire is a light matter. The wicked will suffer torments in the presence of God and the Lamb (Revelation 14:10), feeling God’s wrath against sin and knowing that they are eternally excluded from the glories of Paradise. The less guilty will be consumed rapidly; the more guilty will suffer longer. But the fire that cannot be put out will eventually burn out, leaving only ashes. Then God will create a new world without a trace of evil. Sin and sinners will be no more. And everyone will be satisfied that God is compassionate, just, and fair.
Beatrice S. Neall
Professor Emerita of Religion
I am grateful for Avery Cardinal Dulles’ helpful and clarifying essay. I would like to add a further thought: our wrangling over the statement “We may hope that Hell is empty” may be due to obsessing over the end of the sentence and missing the trapdoor at the beginning, the little word “hope.”
What does it mean when someone “hopes” that hell is empty? It sometimes sounds as if a sure-and-certain hope is intended, a complacent hope, as in “I hope this fine weather continues tomorrow.” That kind of confidence is clearly unsupported in or out of Scripture, and is grossly presumptuous. It is also directly harmful to the impulse for evangelism; fellow Christians have told me that it is no longer necessary to spread the gospel because God will find a way to save everybody anyway.
A more appropriate hope might be akin to “I hope they get that little girl out of the well alive.” We feel a fervent, even desperate longing that this hope will prove true. We would do anything within our power to make it so. When we receive the instruction, “Go into all the world and make disciples,” we rejoice to know a way to help bring our hope to reality.
One more kind of hope might be the wistful or daydreaming hope expressed in Jacques Maritain’s “reverie.” Edith Stein’s thesis may fit into this same category. In this case we are imagining how our hopes—we might even say “wishes”—could be brought about by God. We make no claim to have figured it out definitively, but are indulging in a pleasant stream of possibilities. Similarly, when I was a small child, I used to hope that my parents would give me a pony for Christmas. However, I learned that my hopes did not compel my parents. We are of course free to wish or to hope anything we can imagine, but we shouldn’t think our wishes bind God’s hands. When we wake from the daydream we find that all He has told us is that we should spread the gospel. Apparently we servants don’t need to know any more. Fulfilling that commandment will keep us busy enough until the day we finally learn the truth.
Avery Cardinal Dulles does his usual excellent job in tracing the history of the doctrine of hell in Scripture and tradition. He also demonstrates his usual fairness and balance in explicating the theological opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar and others to the effect that there is a possibility—which we may have a duty to hope for—that all may be saved.
While acknowledging that the overwhelming preponderance of Scripture and theological tradition (including Augustine and Aquinas) holds that many, if not most, will in fact be lost, Cardinal Dulles investigates the possibility of a legitimate shift in the tradition that might soften this view and make more room for von Balthasar’s thesis.
I think it’s clear that a careful reading of the documents of Vatican II does evidence such a broadening, but with very important qualifications. The key text, it seems to me, is found in Lumen Gentium.
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. . . . But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Romans 1:21,25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:16) takes zealous care to foster the missions. (LG 16)
The Council clearly acknowledges that God offers the possibility of salvation to people who have never heard the gospel. But it also makes some very important qualifications.
First of all, it is those who “through no fault of their own” do not know the gospel who have the possibility of salvation. The implication is that people can be at fault for not hearing the gospel.
Secondly, salvation is possible for those who have not heard the gospel through no fault of their own if they indeed “seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of conscience.” This seems to me to be a rather stiff requirement.
Thirdly, the possibility of salvation does not exist in some neutral vacuum. There are opposing forces that seek to impel human beings to reject the light of conscience and prefer the works of darkness to the works of light, to seek self rather than God, and to do what satisfies the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, rather than the will of God (1 John 2: 15-17). In other words, the world, the flesh, and the devil are formidable obstacles to responding to the light and grace that God gives.
It seems to me that a fair way of describing what has happened in Vatican II is a recovery of the range of scriptural teaching on salvation to allow for salvation outside the visible confines of the Church, of explicit faith and sacramental baptism. A certain Catholic “fundamentalism” or “ecclesiocentrism” has been overcome, and God is allowed to be God.
On the other hand, it is a huge mistake, theologically and pastorally, to move from the possibility of salvation apart from Christ and the Church to the probability of such salvation. Even with the necessary broadening of the tradition, the sobering words of Peter remain very apropos: “If the righteous man is scarcely saved, where will the impious and sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:18)
Instructor of Theology
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Ave Maria College
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Avery Cardinal Dulles responds:
As I expected, the readers of First Things have come up with some stimulating reactions to my article. They provide me with a welcome opportunity to clarify certain points. Father Benedict Groeschel, without disagreeing with anything I wrote, adds a consoling pastoral reflection based on private revelation. He would concede, I presume, that private revelations never settle questions of faith, especially since the reported visions of different holy persons sometimes point in different directions. It is interesting that both Fr. Groeschel and Anthony Grigor cite St. Faustina, but do so in support of very different points.
I took it for granted in my article that God may sometimes give special graces to dying persons to rescue them from the jaws of perdition. The hypothesis of the “final option” has been extensively discussed in the theological literature since the early 1930s. But even if such an option is offered to every dying person, it does not settle the question of salvation, for, as Fr. Groeschel notes, God’s final grace still leaves the recipient free. Hope as we may, we have no assurance that everyone accepts that grace before dying.
Mr. Grigor is correct in pointing out that our contemporaries are offended by the doctrine of eternal punishment. But the difficulty is hardly novel. It was already felt by Origen and others in the early centuries. The eternity of hell was energetically discussed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Catholic lay theologian St. George Mivart wrote an essay on “The Happiness of Hell,” propounding a theory similar to the “reverie” of Maritain mentioned in my article. The damned, he conjectured, might experience “an eternal upward progress, though never attaining to the supernatural state which would no doubt be most unwelcome and repugnant to such souls.” The Holy Office condemned Mivart’s theory, and he expressed his total and sincere submission in 1893. If the doctrine of eternal punishment really proved anything against the nature of God as a loving Father, Jesus would surely have felt the contradiction. But he did not shrink from uttering “hard sayings” on this point, as on others. While Jesus spoke in metaphors that we cannot translate into literal language, I would not wish to minimize the severity of his warnings.
Edgar Jones is correct in saying that God can do what He wants, provided (I would add) that the actions are compatible with the divine attributes. But God can also reveal, to a greater or less extent, what He intends to do. He has, I take it, revealed that those who die with serious unrepented sin on their conscience will be justly sentenced to eternal punishment. His warnings are surely more than empty threats.
Beatrice Neall argues with some skill that annihilation is a biblical doctrine. But I am not convinced. When Paul says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), he does not seem to mean annihilation. He often uses the term “death” to signify spiritual death; for example, when he says that his converts before baptism were dead through sin (Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13). The Book of Revelation speaks of the “second death,” experienced by those who are to be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone (Revelation 21:8). As for Matthew 10:28, I neither misquoted it nor did I quote it at all. I paraphrased it as referring to damnation, which is the way that most exegetes seem to understand the text. Since, as the New Jerome Biblical Commentary says, “the force of the verb ‘destroy’ is uncertain,” some explanation is needed. Does “destroy” here mean “annihilate” or “bring to ruin”? Texts such as Matthew 18:8, 25:41,46; Mark 9:47-48; and Revelation 20:10 clearly rule out annihilation. Even if the matter were left obscure in Scripture (as I do not think it is), the teaching of the Catholic Church (and most other Christian churches) rejects the doctrine of annihilation. Beginning with the Athanasian Creed, a whole series of authoritative documents speak of hell as everlasting punishment.
Frederica Mathewes-Green makes a useful distinction between the different meanings of hope. Whatever hope we may have for the salvation of all is not the same as that which we have for those who believe in the Lord with all their hearts. At the end, she sums up the whole matter very well. “Apparently, we servants don’t need to know any more.” God does not need to satisfy our curiosity.
I have no substantive disagreement with Ralph Martin. He gives a clear and correct exposition of Vatican II. Let me suggest one friendly amendment. Toward the end of his letter he speaks of “the possibility of salvation apart from Christ and the Church.” By this he presumably means “apart from explicit faith in Christ and the Church.” I do not suppose him to be denying that God’s grace is always distributed through Christ and the Church.
Let me take this occasion to clarify a further point. I reported that Pope John Paul II, according to the English text of one of his General Audience talks, said: “Eternal damnation remains a possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.” By now I have been able to get my hands on the official (Italian) version of the talk in the Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II. It agrees with the English except that the words “whether or” are omitted. Thus the Pope cannot be cited as tending toward universalism. On the contrary, he teaches here as elsewhere that some have in fact said “no” to the divine invitation to everlasting life. I believe this to be the case, though the Church has never taught under pain of heresy that anyone is damned.
Who’s a Jew?
When I wrote The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, I expected enthusiastic approval along with a torrent of denunciation, and these expectations have been duly confirmed. Nonetheless, I was somewhat surprised by the tone of David Singer’s essay “The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Heresy Hunter” (May), which attributes to me bitterness, rage, barely controlled hysteria, egotism, absurdity, and nonsense, all in the service of my aspiration to emulate Torquemada.
Regrettably, Mr. Singer misrepresents or virtually ignores key contentions of the book. Thus, the position he labels absurdity and nonsense is one that I never affirmed, namely, my alleged “claim that the Lubavitcher messianists have had a major impact on the larger Jewish community,” which he understands as the acceptance of the Rebbe’s messiahship by significant numbers of non-Lubavitch Jews. Such a contention would indeed be nonsense. Mr. Singer asserts that I finally acknowledge on the last page of the book that “most Orthodox Jews still adhere” to the traditional messianic faith, when this assertion already appears on p. 2 (referring there to “the vast majority”). My real point, made clearly on those two pages and repeated throughout the book, is not that non-Lubavitch Jews believe that the Rebbe is the messiah, but that the recognition of believers as Orthodox rabbis establishes that belief as a legitimate option within Orthodoxy. It is this recognition that makes the last decade a watershed in the history of the Jewish religion, wiping out a fundamental distinction between Judaism and Christianity.
Not once in his essay does Mr. Singer provide a clear statement of this point, which is the central contention of the entire book. After he has exposed my absurd, nonsensical “stand[ing of] reality on its head” as I conjure up “an all-powerful enemy,” he finally turns to my indictment of Orthodox Jewry for indifference and notes my assertion that this indifference has led to a situation in which “the messianic faith of Judaism is dying.” But he gives no indication of what I mean by this, continuing to leave the reader with the impression that I imagine that such inaction has led to the spread of this belief throughout the Orthodox community. He goes on to call me as a witness against myself by quoting a paragraph from the book in which I list examples of the delegitimation of Lubavitch messianism by mainstream Jews; he does not, however, acknowledge the overwhelming evidence alluded to in the very next paragraph and throughout the book that these examples do not reflect the dominant reality, which grants Orthodox recognition to Lubavitch messianists all over the world. When he proceeds to note my position that messianists should be removed from positions of religious authority, he presents this as a “witch hunt” without supplying the slightest indication of the argument for it.
Let me elaborate just a bit on that argument. Jews through the ages have declared to Christian polemicists and missionaries that Judaism rejects on principle the position that the messiah will die in the midst of his uncompleted redemptive mission. Rather, they have argued, Judaism has a set of clear criteria that a claimant must meet in order to be identified confidently as the messiah. Anyone who denies these propositions, they have insisted, has rejected Judaism.
Now, however, a Christian can approach David Singer and ask how it is that people who openly proclaim their denial of these same propositions are accepted as synagogue rabbis, members and even heads of rabbinic courts, supervisors of kosher food, and principals of yeshivas both inside and outside Lubavitch. After rereading his article in First Things and realizing that not a single word of it is responsive to this question, he would have to reply either that such acceptance is a terrible mistake and needs to be reversed (thereby endorsing my core argument) or that belief in the messiahship of the deceased Rebbe does not in fact contradict a fundamental Jewish tenet (thereby contributing further to the deformation of his religion).
I am not certain whether the messianists’ abolition of the parameters of a basic Jewish belief while adhering to the belief itself is technically heresy, but I do know that appointing those who abolish such parameters as Orthodox rabbis betrays Judaism. In this context, I note Mr. Singer’s unfortunate assertion that I call the believers “vile heretics.” The word “heresy” does not appear in the book until p. 145, where we find the following: “The messianist belief in itself, with its abolition of Judaism’s criteria for identifying the messiah, is seen by some as heresy. I have studiously avoided that term, though I do not quarrel with those who use it.” I made the same point parenthetically in an article on a different theme; since Mr. Singer quotes a passage from that article, he is doubly aware of his “heresy hunter’s” avoidance of the term “heretic” (let alone “vile heretic”) to describe the messianists.
Another central point that goes unremarked in the article except for its appearance in one sentence of a footnote reproduced from the book is my contention that no Jewish source whatever allows for the belief that the true messiah will unequivocally proclaim the coming of the redemption in his generation, preside over a messianic movement, and then die in an unredeemed world. This is what Jews have always seen as false messianism pure and simple. The Rebbe, whatever his ambivalence or inconsistencies, unquestionably did all this, and so the issue of a few sources that may countenance the notion of a messiah from the dead is ultimately irrelevant. Mr. Singer would have wanted me to ignore the Lubavitch proof texts entirely, a procedure that would have left me open to the just criticism that I denounce an entire movement without even engaging its arguments.
We turn now to another fundamental issue that Mr. Singer does not address at all. In his second paragraph he notes that some Lubavitch hasidim regard the Rebbe as “a divine being,” and he later approvingly quotes a taxonomy of Lubavitch beliefs from the book that includes this doctrine. But when he reports that I “make four assertions in [the] book,” this one, to which I devote three chapters and two appendixes, is not even listed. Since Mr. Singer does not contest the existence of this belief among important figures in the movement, his failure to deal with it at all is puzzling.
I am tempted to say that this is a conscious omission motivated by his realization that he could not address the matter while maintaining the thesis of his article, since he could hardly assert that people who consider the Rebbe an omniscient, omnipotent, and unlimited God-man should be allowed to serve as Orthodox rabbis. My instinct, however, is a more generous one. I believe that such doctrines strike Jews as so alien that even when they read the evidence they cannot quite internalize it, and so they continue to react as if it did not exist. Regrettably, it does, and so even incarnationism threatens to become a belief that does not exclude a Jew from Orthodoxy. Here again—even more dramatically—the theological boundaries between Judaism and Christianity are being erased.
Since I made a point of underscoring the emotional/psychological and intellectual difficulties preventing messianists from abandoning their faith (pp. 25, 123-125, 140), I do not know what to make of Mr. Singer’s criticism that I have no sympathy for their plight. He goes on to attribute this alleged lack of sympathy to my “remarkable” conviction, demonstrated by a quotation from an unrelated article describing my own religious struggles as a teenager, that a person can coerce himself into proper religious belief. Has Mr. Singer, who is himself Orthodox, never been beset by any religious doubts, and if he has, was the course of his inner odyssey entirely unaffected by what he knew Orthodox Jews are supposed to believe?
And so we come to my Torquemada-like “witch hunt.” All religions, certainly all Orthodoxies, have boundaries. We are faced with a situation in which someone changes a fundamental component of a religion and then demands to be recognized as a religious leader or functionary in that religion. It appears to be Mr. Singer’s position that the canons of tolerance require adherents of the religion to accept this demand. Thus, a person can hijack your religion, and if you dare to object, you are Torquemada.
Let me provide a concrete example of the regrettable need to ask questions of Lubavitch hasidim. A Lubavitch principal was hired by a non-Lubavitch day school in a fairly small Jewish community. After approximately two years, when he had solidified his popularity among members of the board, he began to send his son to school with a skullcap emblazoned with the slogan proclaiming the Rebbe’s messiahship. The rabbi of the community had to engage in a prolonged and very difficult struggle to arrange the principal’s departure, one that he had no guarantee of winning. Does Mr. Singer regard such a principal as an acceptable role model for Orthodox children? Were he a member of the board, would he have denounced the rabbi as Torquemada redivivus?
Finally we reach Mr. Singer’s concluding point about the usefulness of false messianism as a symptom and even inspiration of religious vigor. Surprisingly, I wrote one sentence in the book that comes close to endorsing this position, to wit, “I even agree that the messiah campaign has had a salutary effect in enhancing awareness and understanding of the messianic faith” (p. 50). But it should be self-evident that religious vigor manifested in a manner that shatters the fundamental beliefs of a religion cannot convey a right to be seen as a legitimate exemplar of the religion in question.
We confront a fascinating phenomenon of central importance to the internal definition of the Jewish faith and to its historic relationship with Christianity. For countless generations, there was a religion called Judaism in which it was understood that anyone pressured to declare belief in a fully divine messiah who died in the middle of his messianic mission was obligated to die rather than acquiesce. Many did die; some killed themselves and even their children. But today one who makes this very declaration is considered an Orthodox rabbi in perfectly good standing, eligible to preside over a rabbinic court, to teach in a yeshiva receiving support from mainstream Orthodoxy, and to serve as a scribe or ritual slaughterer. When a religion moves from requiring martyrdom rather than declaring x to recognizing one who declares x as a religious authority, that religion has undergone a fateful transformation.
Several Christian theologians and scholars who have read my book have been struck by the potentially monumental significance of this development. Casual observers instinctively see this as the eccentric doctrine of a small sect, but as they ponder the matter they will, I think, recognize that we are dealing with a striking moment in religious history. Orthodox Jews must struggle, in my view, to render this moment as insignificant as possible. I am hopeful, but I am not sanguine.
Broeklundian Professor of History
and the Graduate Center
City University of New York
David Singer responds:
David Berger’s letter is a sham, meant to cover up his true intentions with regard to the Lubavitcher messianists. Professor Berger, in fact, calls for a jihad against Lubavitch, as the following citations from his book make clear:
The most important principle is that no messianist should be treated as an Orthodox rabbi or functionary in good standing. No such person should be permitted to head or even serve on a rabbinical court. Every Jew must categorically refuse to appear before a court headed by a messianist. . . .
No messianist should serve as a communal or synagogue rabbi. Anyone with the authority to remove such a rabbi is obligated to do so. . . . An organization like the National Council of Young Israel must immediately expel a synagogue that refuses to dismiss a messianist rabbi. . . .
No messianist should be appointed as Jewish studies principal or teacher in an Orthodox yeshiva. . . .
Messianist institutions, no matter how many “good things” they do, must be excluded from the Orthodox community. . . . Orthodox Jews should not attend the functions of such institutions or raise money for them. . . . No one should even dream of sending a child to a Lubavitch-run school or summer camp without receiving . . . a letter [rejecting the Rebbe as messiah] from the director, and an equivalent statement must be elicited from every Lubavitch candidate for a position as rabbi or teacher. . . .
Unless one is to disqualify all Lubavitch ritual slaughterers, the task of a supervisory organization is to ask whether the candidate for a post believes that the Rebbe is the messiah. . . . If the answer is not unequivocally negative, I would not hire him. . . .
One should not purchase any of these items [Torah scrolls, tefillin, mezuzahs] from a Lubavitch scribe whose theology has not been determined. . . .
Finally, Lubavitch witnesses at weddings and especially divorce proceedings require special scrutiny.
All this appears in a chapter of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference entitled “What Must Be Done?”
We would all do well to heed Dr. Maureen L. Condic’s warning in “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End” (May). Especially chilling are Dr. Condic’s words: “Once the nature of human beings as organisms has been abandoned as the basis for legal personhood, it is difficult to propose an alternative definition that could not be used to deny humanity to virtually anyone.” I share Dr. Condic’s concern about the precedent which our society’s arbitrary way of defining “the status of prenatal human beings” is setting for “future legislation on human rights.” Currently, as Dr. Condic points out, there is an inconsistency between our society’s view of “prenatal human worth” and its view of “postnatal human worth.” However, as time goes by, that inconsistency may be resolved by making the rest of the system consistent with it. History has taught us more than once that when you cheapen the value of human life at either end of the spectrum, you run the risk of finding yourself on the receiving end of the consequences.
St. Louis, Missouri
Maureen L. Condic states that the standard of “brain death” as the critical difference between living persons and corpses is “now widely (though not universally) accepted throughout the world.” She defines brain death as the result of irreversible damage to the brain, resulting in a complete and permanent failure of brain function, and also states that brain death causes the loss of the body’s capacity to function in a coordinated fashion as a whole. She appears to accept that this putative loss of coordinated function is equivalent to actual death of the person.
There are some problems with this, however. The Harvard Ad Hoc Committee’s 1986 definition implied that brain death should be regarded as death because it inevitably leads to death and that the person in irreversible coma is, for all practical purposes, if not in reality, dead. Untold semantic confusion followed this oxymoronic notion. Many persons declared brain dead have retained free-water homeostasis vasopressin; some show electrical activity in their electro-encephalograms; some react to surgical incision with a rise in heart beat and blood pressure indicating possible integrated neurological function at the supraspinal level; some have a heart beat, digest food, and may even bring a pregnancy to term. Enough evidence therefore exists to cast doubt on the standard definition of brain death as the irreversible absence of all function of the brain.
Dr. Alan Shewmon asserts that the body is dead when it has lost its function at the level of the organism as a whole, and that integrative unity of bodily life exists if there is at least one emergent (gestalt) property at the level of the body as a whole. This property cannot be localized in any part or parts and derives strictly from the mutual interaction of the parts. Furthermore, a wide variety of studies indicates conclusively that the criteria for brain death vary, are not consistent, and are even increasingly ignored. To cite but one example, guidelines for determining brain death vary widely among European nations. (American physicians assume that irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain and brain stem is necessary before death can be declared.) As Dr. Condic says, the moment when a human being comes into existence is indeed known with great precision. It is the moment of conception. The moment when a person dies is not yet known with such precision and moral certainty.
John B. Shea, MD
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Maureen L. Condic’s article is to be commended for defining life in terms of the coordinated unity of parts that work together in the organism as a whole. She opposes the position that death should be defined in terms of loss of the capacity for consciousness (a position dating back to John Locke’s distinction between personhood and organism, and which has its roots in Descartes’ strict mind-body dualism). Thus, she considers patients in a persistent vegetative state to be alive. Her attempt to understand the beginning of life in terms of its end should also be commended; if life is defined in terms of integrated organic unity, surely the embryo is such a unity.
Unfortunately, Dr. Condic’s position is considerably weakened by her support of the position that “the irreversible loss of brain function” (presumably she is referring to so-called “whole brain death”) marks the death of the person. She accepts the claim, made earlier by the 1981 President’s Commission Report, “Defining Death,” that such loss of brain function means that the integrated unified functioning of the organism as a whole has ceased. As she puts it:
What has been lost at death is not merely the activity of the brain or the heart, but more importantly the ability of the body’s parts (organs and cells) to function together as an integrated whole. Failure of a critical organ results in the breakdown of the body’s overall coordinated activity, despite the continued normal function (or “life”) of other organs.
She points to the fact that when the ventilator is removed, the “cells and organs of the body undergo the same slow death by oxygen deprivation they would have experienced had medical science not intervened.” Of course, this is also true in the case of ventilator-dependent conscious patients—if their ventilators are removed, their cells and organs will also undergo slow death by oxygen deprivation. Are such ventilator-dependent patients dead? Surely not. Machine dependence is no more relevant for determining when a person is alive than dependence of the embryo on the mother is relevant for determining whether the embryo is alive. Brain-dead patients have functioning circulatory systems, since their hearts circulate oxygenated blood throughout the body. Their respiratory systems continue to function in the sense that the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide still occurs in the lungs and other body tissues. Brain-dead pregnant women have lived for weeks before they delivered healthy children. Alan Shewmon, a pediatric neurologist at UCLA, has reported a brain-dead boy who has lived fourteen years. Even if it were true that brain-dead patients would soon die in the usual sense of the loss of circulation and respiration, that would only imply that brain death is a prognosis, a predictor that death will soon occur; it is not a diagnosis that death has already occurred.
Dr. Condic admits that patients in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) are alive because their bodies function as integrated wholes. But what is the morally relevant difference between a PVS patient and a brain-dead patient? The PVS patient is dependent, not on a ventilator, but on a feeding tube and basic nursing care, in order to live. Dr. Condic seems to think that spontaneous breathing “counts for life” in the case of PVS patients. Why does not the spontaneous heartbeat of brain-dead patients “count for life”?
Dr. Condic also admits that “the advantage of brain death as a legal and medical definition for the end of life is that the quality of organs for transplant can be maintained by maintaining artificial respiration.” This is probably the main reason why those who are pro-life, such as Dr. Condic, are unwilling to give up brain death as the proper criterion for death. If brain-dead individuals are living human persons, removing their unpaired vital organs would constitute unjustified killing. While many who hold a pro-life position, such as Dr. Condic, might consider this prospect too high a price to pay, it is not too high a price to pay for truth, especially if the truth is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Maureen L. Condic, in her compelling argument for symmetrical criteria for the beginning and the end of human life, reports without comment the current use of the brain-death criterion for the end point of human life. But symmetry with that criterion would require the beginning of brain activity as the beginning of human life. Such symmetry would place the beginning of life later than Dr. Condic would (rightly) wish.
An alternative to brain death, symmetrical with the embryonic organic synthesizing unity that Dr. Condic supports, has been proposed by Dr. D. Alan Shewmon. A pediatric neurologist, he has studied nearly two hundred brain-dead patients who, with life-support, continued their organic synthesizing unity for significant periods of time. Some were pregnant women who gestated their babies for enough months to allow safe deliveries. His “champion” is one TK, a boy of four who, with MRIs showing his brain to be liquefied, improved enough to be taken off life-support and sent home with just a ventilator and feeding tube. At last report, he had continued for seventeen years to absorb nutrition and give off waste, had fought off infections and healed wounds, had matured sexually and grown to full adult stature. What might this twenty-one-year-old organically synthesizing unit be if not a Homo sapiens, with the same right to life as you and I?
Shewmon was for many years an advocate of the brain-death criterion, which came into favor with the increasing success of organ transplants. But he is now convinced that the brain does not so much cause the organic synthesizing unity of a human body as it monitors such unity when it is already present. (Spiritual soul as substantial form, anyone?) The body’s organic synthesizing unity can persist for some time after the brain’s unity ceases, provided that the circulation of oxygenated blood continues. Such unity is surely evidence of the presence of a person with a right to continuing life. Shewmon now advocates as the go-ahead signal for harvesting transplantable organs a twenty-minute cessation of the circulation of oxygenated blood. After such lack of oxygen, organs almost invariably begin to decompose and are unfit for transplants.
Organ transplants, with the necessity for a criterion of the death of donors, have drawn Vatican attention since the time of Pope Pius XII. John Paul II has called four conferences to study the question. His most recent statement, in August of 2000, is that the brain-death criterion seems to accord with an adequate anthropology, and can be used with moral certitude for harvesting the vital organs of human donors. But that conclusion is a far cry from an infallible pronouncement.
Moral certitude is not absolute certitude. It only allows us to act in good conscience in certain moral matters, where reasonable efforts to learn the truth are the best we can do. But Shewmon’s confirmation in the brain dead of the same synthesizing unity that Dr. Condic sees in human embryos is, to this writer, a morally certain caution against harvesting vital organs on the mere ground of the brain death of their donors. On the principle of symmetry, doing so is very likely the moral equivalent of harvesting stem cells from human embryos.
Mary F. Rousseau
Associate Prof. of Philosophy, Emerita
Maureen L. Condic responds:
Allen Yount concurs that abandoning the nature of human beings as a defining standard of life is indeed a chilling possibility, and I appreciate his words of support.
While not objecting to the arguments put forth in my article regarding the importance of integrated organismal function, John B. Shea maintains that “the moment when a person dies is not yet known with . . . precision and moral certainty.” Dr. Shea correctly notes that the criteria for brain death are neither universally defined nor rigorously implemented, contentions he supports with reference to studies on the subject. The problems in definition (and application) noted by Dr. Shea point to a continued need for international discussion, for greater clarity regarding appropriate diagnostic criteria, and for better oversight to ensure that an appropriate diagnosis is consistently applied.
However, the fact that some definitions of brain death are problematic, resulting in inconsistent or inappropriate diagnoses of death (a point also made by Michael Potts and Mary F. Rousseau), does not mean that all definitions of brain death are similarly plagued by ambiguity and moral uncertainty. The “standard definition” of American physicians, as given by Dr. Shea—that brain death entails “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain and brain stem”—is fully consistent with brain death resulting in a loss of organismal function, and this definition, if consistently applied, appears sufficiently unambiguous to address many of the concerns raised by Dr. Shea and other correspondents.
Mr. Potts makes the important point that “machine dependence” does not determine whether an individual is alive, citing the example of patients in persistent vegetative states being dependent on a feeding tube for survival. I would note that we are all “dependent” on external factors for life (air, water, nourishment) and such dependence in no way alters my argument concerning the nature of death. Patients in a persistent vegetative state continue to function as an integrated whole, with no greater dependence on nourishment than any other member of the human species: only the nutritional “delivery system” has been altered. Dependence on a feeding tube (or on spoon-feeding) has no bearing on the ability of an individual to function as an integrated biologic organism.
The question raised by Mr. Potts regarding the status of ventilator-dependent patients (i.e., patients who have lost organismal function, yet are sustained artificially) is one of considerable interest. I agree with Mr. Potts that the functions of failed organs can be replaced by a wide range of medical interventions (from ventilators to insulin injections) without the continued life of the patient being called into question. From ancient times, the functions of lost or damaged organs have been replaced by artificial means (consider dentures and wooden legs, for example); in recent years we have merely expanded the range of bodily functions that medical science can competently replicate.
It seems to me, however, that there is a meaningful distinction between bodily functions that can be artificially replaced and those that cannot. Kidney function can be taken over in patients with kidney failure by a dialysis machine, and the patient will continue to function as an integrated human organism, albeit with an artificial replacement part. In contrast, lost brain function cannot be replaced by medical devices or chemical interventions. The primary function of the brain is to coordinate and control the activities of the body, with such self-directed coordination of parts for the sake of the whole being the definition of organismal life. Artificial support of brain-dead patients prevents the cellular death of bodily tissues, yet fails to restore lost brain function and therefore fails to restore organismal function. While brain function does not “define” life, organismal function cannot be maintained in the absence of brain function (just as it cannot be maintained in the absence of cardiac function) and brain function (unlike that of many other organs) cannot be replaced by medical devices. In this light, brain function is an essential component of organismal life for mature humans, while other vital organs (lungs, heart, kidneys, etc.) perform tasks that can be artificially accomplished without critically compromising the overall organismal function of patients.
Were medical science to some day generate an “artificial brain,” would it be possible to maintain integrated function (and therefore life) in brain-dead patients as readily as we now maintain life in patients with severe heart damage using artificial hearts? I am inclined to say that should such a device exist and function as advertised, yes—medical science could maintain life even in brain-dead patients. Interestingly, there are compelling scientific and philosophical reasons to believe that medical science will never be able to build an artificial brain, although such arguments are well beyond the scope of the current exchange.
Mr. Potts’ rejection of organismal function as the definition of human life while simultaneously upholding the value of human life has some rather bizarre implications. For example, if we are obligated to sustain all human life, regardless of organismal function, how can death ever be morally permitted? Must every corpse be maintained by life support, even those of patients who have died at an advanced age of natural causes? After all, even aged hearts that have stopped beating can be artificially restarted or their function taken over by machines. If the patient has suffered irreversible kidney damage in the interim, must kidney function be artificially taken over as well? So long as necrosis doesn’t set in, such “patients” could be kept “alive” for a very long time, if not indefinitely—a curious prospect at best. In cases where it proves impossible to maintain the entire body through artificial means, are we obligated to remove cells from the body and sustain them in tissue culture forever, out of respect for “human life” that has ceased to function as a human organism? Mr. Potts asserts that “the spontaneous heartbeat of ‘brain-dead’ patients [should] count for life.” By that argument, shouldn’t the spontaneous beating of an isolated human heart cell in tissue culture also “count for life”? These problematic scenarios make clear the need for a consistent and rational definition of when living “human parts” cease to constitute a living “human person.” Organismal function provides just such a rational definition.
As a relatively small matter, I would like to point out that Mr. Potts’ peculiar insistence (twice in the span of a mere three sentences) that my assumed “pro-life” position combined with my assumed “support” for organ transplantation somehow taints my reasoning is entirely unfounded. I have based my argument on logic, biological fact, and legal precedent, with my own personal opinion (an opinion that I am quite certain I have never confided to Mr. Potts) being irrelevant either to the facts or to the logical implications of those facts.
Professor Rousseau’s assertion that symmetry from irreversible loss of brain function as the definition of death would “require the beginning of brain activity as the beginning of human life” appears to miss the distinction between loss of brain function and loss of organismal function. As I stated in my article, patients in persistent vegetative state who suffer from severe loss of brain function are nonetheless still alive due to the continued organismal function of the body. In contrast, patients who have organismal function critically compromised by any of a number of means are medically and legally dead. Thus organismal function, not brain function, is the defining characteristic of life, and life begins not when the brain begins to function but rather when human embryos begin to function as organisms. Organismal function is unambiguously evident in human embryos from the one-cell stage onward.
On Covering Kevorkian
I suppose it will look ungrateful for me to complain about Wesley J. Smith’s mainly favorable review of my A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (May), but I can’t help feel that he would have liked the book even more if he had read it a bit more closely.
Mr. Smith’s only fundamental criticism was that I scanted the more recent history of the euthanasia debate in America, and in particular “the Kevorkian debacle.” But the book actually begins with Kevorkian’s murder of Thomas Youk, broadcast in 1998 on CBS’ 60 Minutes news show. Not only is there an illustration of Kevorkian (one of eight in the book), but I also cite Kevorkian’s horrific views on medical experimentation, the fact that some of his victims were not terminally ill, the large percentage of women among his victims, and the way his indefensible actions have had a disastrous impact on the reputation of the euthanasia movement since he appeared on the scene in 1990. A glance at the index will prove that Kevorkian received considerably more than “short shrift” in my book.
As for my coverage of events in the 1990s, here too I’m left scratching my head. In fact, I argue that the euthanasia movement, despite recording some of its most impressive victories ever during the decade, has reached a standstill at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Its ritualistic “appeal to autonomy” and personal self-fulfillment through the legalization of a right to die no longer attracts significant numbers of new adherents to the cause, as more and more Americans reach the conclusion that a handful of heart-rending individual cases do not justify changing the nation’s laws governing death and dying. Quite simply, my book contends that most Americans now believe that legalizing either assisted suicide or actual mercy killing would be bad public policy. This explains the seemingly “unfortunate” title (A Merciful End): the history I chronicle suggests strongly that the movement itself has reached its own “merciful end.”
Department of History
University of Prince Edward Island
America and Israel
It seems to me that Richard John Neuhaus has no call to drag Pat Buchanan into the Public Square (“The Sounds of Religion in a Time of War,” May) on the now-tiresome insinuation of anti-Semitism. This based on three lines Father Neuhaus cites (without full context) from a March 24 piece in Buchanan’s American Conservative charging relentless pressure by a smallish group of neoconservaties to take command of our national foreign policy and to reconfigure the map of the Middle East along lines conjunctive with Ariel Sharon’s Likud in Israel. Iraq now, then Syria, then Iran (as Sharon has publicly called for), Saudi Arabia, who next?
Would Fr. Neuhaus prefer to hear it from the Jewish columnist Eric Alterman, who asks in the Nation (April 21, 2003): “Whose interests come first, America’s or Israel’s? . . . Likudniks think it is best for both Israel and the U.S. to beat the crap out of as many Arabs as possible as force is the only thing these people understand.” And Fr. Neuhaus knows there is an increasing chorus of voices on the same theme. Had he sought to be fair he would have cited the preface to Buchanan’s article: “Necons say we attack them because they are Jewish. We do not. We attack them because their warmongering threatens our country even as it finds a reliable echo in Ariel Sharon.”
One thing more, please. I have been a reader of First Things since its very inception. During those years I do not recall one article, not one page, not one paragraph devoted to the tragedy of a displaced Palestinian people under a brutal Israeli occupation—banished from their homeland with only the clothes on their backs in 1948, denied a return to their homes and villages (the timeless names of their villages now altered to fit the new regime)—even as an Israeli Law of Return redeemable for Jews the world over takes over forever the confiscated lands. For years the Palestinians as refugees have lived under an ad hoc civil law administered by a hostile people—tragically shorn of America’s eternal promise of freedom and self-determination, of civil liberties under constitutional law—even as American tax dollars fund the oppression.
These pages have frequently noted that one need not affirm the justice of the way in which the state of Israel was established in 1948 or of Israeli policies since then in order to support Israel’s right to live in peace and security. The tragedy of the Palestinians, including their “refugee” status, is chiefly attributable to a corrupt leadership that has exploited them as pawns in the service of Arab states set upon the destruction of the Jewish state. President Bush’s ambitious plan for democratizing a Middle East in which Palestinian and Israeli states will live together in peace may be too ambitious, but I believe it has a claim upon our prayerful support.
I greatly enjoyed Richard John Neuhaus’ balanced discussion of Vatican II and its sequel (“The Catholic Center,” Public Square, April). However, I found no place for myself and a good many others in his description of the “center” and of “right and left discontinuants.” There are many of us who accept Vatican II as a legitimate Council which set in motion good things, such as fruitful efforts to reconcile with the Jews; but we also drive many miles on Sunday to attend an Indult Tridentine Mass. Perhaps you could call us “gruntled traditionalists”—even the many young people among us.
Father Neuhaus is correct in stating that Vatican II cannot be blamed for everything that happened afterwards. Perhaps the decline in vocations and other woes would have happened anyway. Maybe it would have been even worse if the Council had not taken place. Nonetheless, if the purpose of the Council was to revitalize the Church, then so far, at least, it has largely failed.
I want the old Mass primarily because I find it uniquely beautiful and sacred. I have seen that the new Mass can also be beautiful but often it is not, and in part I flee to the old rite in order to escape the innovative banalities of too many Novus Ordo Masses. Fr. Neuhaus maintains that “the silly season is almost over.” But it’s not over yet; not everywhere. Let us pray. But please, let me pray in the Latin liturgy which for so long united the entire Church, and which the Pope has endorsed in Ecclesia Dei. This is not “discontinuity,” but a wish to carry on the faith handed down for two thousand years and expressed in many forms, including the old and (sometimes) the new Mass, and in Vatican II.
James F. O’Callaghan
Maple Valley, Washington