During the Second Vatican Council, a little-known moment occurred when Msgr Alberto Gori, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, rose to raise a question. Why, he wanted to know, was so little being said about “the eternity of hell” and the possibility of “personal damnation”?
Twenty-five years later, a prominent Cardinal voiced similar concern: “Belief in eternal life has hardly any role to play in preaching today.”
The comment was made by Joseph Ratzinger, now reigning as pope.
Christ’s commission to preach the Gospel to all nations and people is a fundamental part of Catholic teaching, as are the “four last things” of eschatology: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The primary motivation for spreading the Gospel has always been to bring the truth and love of Jesus Christ to those who need it—precisely in hopes of saving their souls. Avoiding hell through baptism and conversion was considered—at least until recently—of paramount importance.
Vatican II called for a new evangelization, and ultimately dealt with eschatology effectively (in Lumen Gentium), developing traditional teaching. But there was a boundless religious optimism in the air which frowned upon any kind of “negativity.” Pope John’s opening speech was celebrated, not just as an opening to the modern world, but a decisive repudiation of the past. In the words of former priest James Carroll:
So thoroughly affirmative was his spirit that his opening remarks to the Council—aptly entitled from their first three words, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, ‘Mother Church Rejoices,’—were a denunciation of denunciation itself, a resounding critique of those to whom ‘the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin . . . prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity.’ Even Catholics could hear in that characterization a criticism of the Hell-threatening negativity that had marked the Church for centuries . . . The achievement of Vatican II is the astonishing rapidity with which the ruthless God of omnidirectional damnation disappeared from Catholic life, and with Him the acutely felt dread of Hell—‘infinite pain, infinitely felt, forever.’
Of course, the full text of Blessed John’s speech, and actual documents of Vatican II, offer a far more traditional reading for the attentive, but there can be little doubt that Carroll’s flawed understanding of the Council was accepted by many at the time, and still is.
The trivialization of hell and its dangers is one of the great maladies of post-Conciliar thinking. The British author Piers Paul Read rightly asks: “Why in particular are we so rarely warned that we run a real risk of spending eternity in torment?” Read complains that “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.” It is a problem that reaches far beyond the Catholic Church, as seen by the controversy among Evangelicals over Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.
The modern flight from hell usually takes one of three forms: outright denial, passive indifference, or—indirectly—belief in universal salvation. The latter has become increasingly attractive to certain Christians, for it allows them to declare their full belief in hell and its eternity while at the same time promote the idea (even though they cannot guarantee it) that no one actually goes there. An empty hell is nothing to fear, or spend one’s life trying to teach about, or avoid.
The pull toward universal salvation has been felt by figures as various as Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jacques Maritain (who speculated the damned could at least be redeemed enough to attain a kind of limbo). More recently, the widely admired Father Robert Barron, in his work, Catholicism, comments:
We can’t declare with utter certitude that anyone—even Judas, even Hitler—has chosen definitively to lock the door against the divine love. Indeed, since the liturgy compels us to pray for all of the dead, and since the law of prayer is the law of belief, we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved.
Against this wave of overflowing salvation optimism, however, comes a book with a healthy dose of Christian realism. In seven heavily researched and carefully argued chapters, Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? accomplishes five things: a) describes how the enthusiasm for universal salvation began, and critiques those encouraging it; b) shows how it is based on a faulty reading of Scripture, Catholic Tradition and especially Vatican II; c) reveals the damage it has done to evangelization and missionary activity; d) lulls people into a false sense of security, minimizing the enormous danger of eternal damnation; and e) proposes a vigorous new pastoral strategy that will reverse these harmful trends.
As Dr. Martin notes, section sixteen of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium makes clear that non-Christians can attain salvation, provided they “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.”
It immediately goes on to emphasize, however:
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 . . . 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’ (Mk. 16: 16) takes zealous care to foster the missions.
In other words, the salvation of non-Christians is possible, but by no means certain, and precisely because they are misled (“very often”) by evil, the need to evangelize them remains as imperative as ever.
These sentences are frequently ignored by those who invoke Vatican II, as are the footnotes to section seventeen of Lumen Gentium, which cite three powerful papal statements on the missions—Maximum illud (1919), Rerum ecclesiae (1926), and Fidei donum (1957), by Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII respectively. In Maximum illud, Benedict XV exhorted missionaries to “carry light to men who lie in the shadow of death and to open the way to heaven for souls that are hurtling to destruction.”
But such are not words heard often in Catholic catechesis nowadays, even though they are fundamental to authentic Catholic teaching.
In response to those who say we should hope that all men are saved, Dr. Martin replies, of course we should—but need to do so remembering original sin, free will, and what Christ and the apostles said about hell, judgment, and the sufferings of those who remain in defiance of God:
There are obvious problems with proposing that all these texts be interpreted as simply ‘existential’ warnings for the ‘now,’ and that nothing can be claimed on their basis about the future. In fact. it is virtually impossible, just on the basis of a grammatical/literary analysis, to interpret these passages as anything other than declarative statements about what in fact will happen in the future and what will be the outcome of the choices that people make.
Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict have stressed the abundance of Christ’s’s love and mercy, but also taught that he is a God of perfect justice who holds evildoers accountable.
Perhaps the greatest argument against the over-confident universalists is their inability to explain why, in world of universal salvation, Christianity would retain any meaning at all. Martin explains:
Jesus makes clear Christianity is not a game or an optional enrichment opportunity but a precious and urgent opportunity to find salvation and escape damnation. In fidelity to the teaching of Christ this is what motivated two thousand years of heroic missionary work and the heroic witness of countless martyrs.
It is that same fidelity which should inspire us to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ today, everywhere and without compromise, for, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, “there is no other name under Heaven granted to men, by which we may receive salvation.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Will Many be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin (Eerdmans, 2012).
Pope John XXIII’s Opening Speech at Vatican II, October 11, 1962.
Vatican II: The Essential Texts, edited by Norman Tanner, with an introduction by James Carroll (Image, 2012).
“Difficulties Confronting the Faith in Europe Today,” by Joseph Ratzinger, L’Osservatore Romano, July 24, 1989, reprinted in Communio.
The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II by Father Ralph M. Wiltgen (TAN Books, 1985).
Hell and the Bible by Piers Paul Read, Ignatius Insight.
“Bell’s Present Heaven,” by Edward T. Oakes, First Things, October, 2011.
The Population of Hell by Cardinal Avery Dulles, First Things, May 2003.
Who Can be Saved? By Cardinal Avery Dulles, First Things, February 2008.
Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II (Knopf, 1995).
“Benedict XVI Invokes the Judgment of God on this World” by Sandro Magister, Chiesa, February 11, 2008.
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