What is said today about ‘fear’ of the Lord in Biblical language is true,” Father Ernest Fortin told his graduate students at Boston College. “It does bear the meanings ‘awe’ and ‘reverence.’ We shouldn’t forget, though, that the word also means fear.” This was the mid-nineties, when John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor had recently re-presented the Church’s teaching on moral law. There are “intrinsically evil acts” that “radically contradict the good of the person made in his image,” wrote the pope. “They are [evil] always and per se.”
At Boston College and other institutions, some students and faculty accepted John Paul’s fresh re-articulation of perennial truths. Others, viewing the teaching as too rigid, wanted nuance. Still others—perhaps a dominant group in academic moral theology—denied the very idea of natural moral law. Father Fortin knew, at the end of the day, that the dispute was really about fear of the Lord. Either there is objective good and evil in our choices and actions; either we should fear offending God and the consequences of doing wrong; or we are beyond good and evil, exempt from judgment and destined for mercy as if by human right. Which is it? In light of the recent McCarrick and Pennsylvania Grand Jury revelations, the question is urgent.
There is a connection between moral law and justice, wrath, and judgment. It is no surprise that those who reject the one easily doubt the metaphysical reality of the others. This can have both “real-world” and theological consequences, as Michael Pakaluk shows in his recent essay, “Capital Punishment and the Sex Abuse Crisis.” Pakaluk is concerned about potential shifts in the Church’s traditional teachings about justice in capital crimes—i.e. that the death penalty, and even life imprisonment, may begin to be seen as impermissible in principle because they separate condemned persons permanently from society. “An attitude which absolutely opposes the death penalty in all circumstances,” he writes, “must be an attitude which downplays or even rejects the aspect of separation, so fundamental to punishment.” Retributive justice—a key element of the Church’s historic understanding of justice—is being questioned in unprecedented ways. Pakaluk sees a disturbing parallel to this questioning in the refusal of many American bishops to separate clerical sex offenders from their parishes. Restoration, not punishment, has been the goal in repeated instances. Pakaluk concludes in a theological mode, “We know that some of the hierarchy lacked seriousness about sexual unchastity in others, because they were not serious about it in themselves. Such men may not believe in retribution, but unless they repent in their hearts they will learn it at the hands of God.”
Do Cardinal McCarrick and many others in the clergy believe in retribution? Do they believe in the eternal separation of hell? If they accept hell in theory, do they believe in its actual possibility for unrepentant sinners who persist in mortal sin? Is there, for them, such a thing as mortal sin—or are our lives about choosing a “fundamental option” for God that assures eternal blessedness regardless of our thoughts, words, and deeds?
One thing is perfectly clear: The doctrines of hell and grave sin have been downplayed for decades in the American Church. How many times have we heard the doctrines preached? When is the moral law presented as obligatory? How often is the sacrament of Confession urged upon the flock as essential because ignoring it entails risk? How many Catholic school children have heard a single word about God’s wrath against sin—about how this wrath is a very attribute of his love for us?
I once offered to teach an 11th-grade parish confirmation class. The director of religious education welcomed me, and gave me a textbook. In this book, I read of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and perused a lesson on how to ask dad politely for the car keys. Returning to the DRE, I gently offered to take a different approach. I wanted to use the Bible to illustrate sins from the Old Testament and employ New Testament passages to show how Christ heals from sin and makes virtuous living possible. She permitted this, yet cautioned that she wasn’t sure the Bible was developmentally appropriate for 11th-graders. The Fall, sin, the devil, hell, redemption, atonement, justification, sanctification—it’s all a bit hifalutin. Not to mention weird, dogmatic, and unprogressive. Getting on with mom and dad is much more relevant.
The Church in America has, for the most part, almost exclusively emphasized doctrines of grace, forgiveness, love, and this-world social justice, as though there is little or no eschatological dimension to reality. To the extent that eschatology is preached or taught in schools it tends to be heaven alone (except for Hitler and maybe the likes of Trump). It is commonly good news all the time, to the point where the Good News of Jesus can seem a bit arbitrary, as though the Incarnate Christ found no particularly bad news about man to respond to on earth.
For me and many fellow converts in the past quarter century, the “good news all the time” approach has been especially puzzling. I came to see Christ in the Catholic Church as the sure source of healing, forgiveness, growth, and transformation. The way of sanctification in the Church—by grace and mercy and love—I saw not only as possible, but compellingly attractive. For many, there comes a moment of recognition that we are unrighteous, in radical need of a savior and redeemer as well as a brother and friend. Thus the Good News that is the gospel. Thus the evangelical power of the Church.
The deepening crises in the American Church today provide new impetus for theological and pastoral clarity. Reaffirming and proclaiming doctrines of sin, judgment, and hell need not—as we will be told—return us to the perceived old days of cravenness, despair, ruler-wielding nuns, and torture-chamber confessionals. Done well, it should instead offer a genuine reality check. We can still dare to hope and pray for repentance for all, indeed for the salvation of all, without presumption.
As Father Richard John Neuhaus reflected in Death on a Friday Afternoon,
Not to put too fine a point on it, we should live in fear of damnation. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” There is no contradiction, there is not even a tension, between hoping that hell is empty and knowing that it is possible we may spend eternity in hell. The one thing we hope, the other we know.
Pope Benedict XVI once said, “the absence of the fear of God is the beginning of all foolishness.” In our time, in our Church, it has brought more than foolishness. Let us return to the necessary fear—and in it, ground our hope in Christ more firmly.
Todd R. Flanders is headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota.