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The Church must challenge the idea that life on earth always ends with heaven

The drama of salvation is one in which we all play a part, whether we like it or not

By on Thursday, 6 September 2012

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (CNS photo)

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (CNS photo)

In the August 24 edition of the print version of The Catholic Herald I wrote an article which dealt with the necessity of evangelisation in the face of declining Catholic practice in the United Kingdom. This attracted two replies in the letters column of the paper the next week, one of which came from Fr Andrew Pinsent, of Oxford University. What he says is so interesting, I thought I would reproduce it here.

Fr Pinsent identifies two problems which have led to our current state of affairs:

First, there has been an almost complete loss of any sense of the “drama of salvation”, namely that the eternal outcome of our lives is an open question. If you ask churchgoers today what they think happens to them when we die, many of them will say that we go to heaven, not judgment (cf Hebrews 9:27).

He is completely correct in this and puts his finger on something important. I remember once being in the Cathedral of Torcello, which boasts a huge mosaic of the Last Judgment. I was resting my weary feet while a guide explained the significance of the mosaic to some tourists. The person next to me said: “He is explaining it from the outside.” In other words, modern people look at the Last Judgement as a picture in which they themselves are not present.

But in every picture of the Last Judgement, if we look carefully, we will see ourselves depicted. This is a drama in which we will play a part, whether we like it or not. To imagine that heaven follows life on earth almost as a matter of course is to delude oneself.

Here one might add that the Church needs to tread carefully: we need to challenge people’s idea that salvation is automatic, without driving them away. We must of course stress God is Love and Mercy; but we must also stress that he is perfect Justice as well, and that in Him charity and justice coincide without any contradiction.

Fr Pinsent goes on:

Second, there has been a loss of any distinction between the life of nature and the life of grace. Much teaching and pastoral example today implies that being a Catholic is simply one way to cultivate civic virtue and good manners. What has largely been forgotten is the meaning and importance of sanctifying grace, by which we become adopted children of God, enjoying the gift of second-person relatedness to God, the ultimate fruit of which is to enter the communion of saints in heaven.

Again, I find myself in complete agreement. While it is true that religion is socially useful, we must resist all attempts to understand religion as purely a socially useful phenomenon. You become a Catholic to experience God’s grace at first hand in the sacraments, not because Catholics are a nice bunch of people, or because they have good schools. All the social and secular activities of our parishes must be subordinate to this one end – the reception of divine grace; indeed that is the only reason behind the social structures, to make the sacraments more accessible to people.

Fr Pinsent concludes:

This combination of lethargic universalism and loss of grace, aided and abetted by certain perverted theological writings of the last century, drains much of the urgency out of Catholic life and mission and cuts us off from most Christians of previous ages. Unless we recover an appreciation of such principles, I fear that even serving better coffee after Mass will not arrest the decline.

I wonder which theologians he has in mind? But of our contemporaries, let me point the finger at whoever invented the phrase “faith-based initiatives”. This implies that people have faith and so go on to found schools or hospitals. But it is the faith that matters more than the initiative. The phrase subordinates faith to socially useful works, which is dangerous. Faith matters.

This danger crops up in certain missionary ambiences, where the Church can be hugely successful in building schools, hospitals, and model farms, all great faith-based initiatives. But in the midst of this success, the missionaries can lose sight of what it was they came for: not any physical structure, but the proclamation of what Fr Pinsent so rightly terms “the drama of salvation”.

  • karlf

    So you don’t communicate with God? I thought that’s why you prayed?

  • Lt.Fudgecake

    Does purgatory come into this anywhere? Perhaps many Catholics believe they’ll go there… then eventually to salvation. Thus damnation appears unlikely… any thoughts?

  • JabbaPapa

    Circular logic will lead you nowhere.

  • karlf

    Well why do you pray? Can you answer that straightforward question?

  • Peter

    I’ve yet to see a malnourished person in a British parish, or an elderly person left to die on road outside, or orphaned children sleeping among rubbish in the carpark.

  • JabbaPapa

    Most parishes are not located in the UK.

  • JabbaPapa

    And so we circle back round to your starting position, which leads obviously back around the roundabout…

    I’m not very keen on pointless engagement with your rather hide-bound belief system.

    Believe whatever you want to believe.

  • Peter

    I know, but if you have following my comments you will know that I was referring to parishes in the rich world in general and within Britain in particular, especially as this is a British publication.

  • Peter

    Yes, at the point of death, even if one is a great sinner, if one is sorry for his sins and begs forgiveness, he will be saved and go to purgatory where he will probably remain until the day of Judgement as temporal punishment for those sins.

    However, if a great sinner dies in defiance of God and does not want forgiveness, there is no purgatory for that soul.

    Likewise, if one spends one’s life not commititing grave sins but ignoring the poor – not harming them but simply ignoring their plight – then it is difficult to see how that person can even enter purgatory unless at the point of death he begs forgiveness for having ignored the poor in life.

    However, a person who has done great wrong in life is aware of having done that wrong and is more likely to beg forgiveness as he dies.

    A person who has done little wrong, on the other hand, while at the same time ignoring the poor, is not aware of having done great wrong in life and is therefore less likely to beg forgiveness.

    That is the danger of ignoring the poor.  It gets you to hell even when you don’t expect it, as the goats in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgement will testify.

  • karlf

    Ha ha! You are so disingenuous jabba! I ask you a straightforward question about your beliefs and you come back at me with all this nonsense, and no answer!

  • JabbaPapa

    Your question, that I responded to, was : “Why doesn’t the Church teach this glaring truth?

    There is nothing about “the UK” in this question.

    Quite apart from which, there are large numbers of extremely impoverished parishes “in the rich world”, including I’d hazard many such parishes in the UK as well.

  • JabbaPapa

    Next stage round the circle — you’re well on your way to completing your second full round.

  • karlf

    There is no circle. I’m just asking why it is that you pray. Can’t you just answer that without resorting to all this nonsense about circles?

  • Peter

    I’m sorry if you misunderstood.  I meant in Britain since, as I have mentioned, this is a British paper.

    Of course there are parishes in the UK within council estates where many are on benefits, but there is no-one malnourished or festering in the gutter, nor are there groups of children living on rubbish tips and in open sewers or dying from lack of basic medicine and clean water.

  • JabbaPapa

    I did not “misunderstand” — I pointed out a difficulty.

  • John Gramstadt

    Agreed. Hell is real and we must repent or we will go there BY THE BUCKET LOAD

  • zcastaux

    Dear Friend, don’t you remember

  • zcastaux

    Oh what a wonderful quotation! How truly rational it is to avoid evil and (through practice) to pursue the good! Nowadays, people think you are really ill for doing this…..

  • Maccabeus

    No Hell, no need of salvation; no need of salvation, no need of a Saviour, Christ; no need of Christ no need of Christianity. The raison d’etre of christianity has always been, up to Vatican II, the terrifying reality of eternal damnation in Hell and the need to escape that damnation via Christ and his Church, obeying the commandments and seeking to live a moral Christian life. Jettisoning Hell to please the liberal social elites has rendered Christianity pointless. A God of unbounding, unquestioning and irresponsibly indiscriminate love has replaced the God of Love and Justice: the perfect God who must express his love through mercy and his justice, for the unrepentant and unbelieving, with punishment in Hell. If Christianity does not, therefore, as a matter of urgency, recover the truth of Hell, it will consign itself to historical oblivion. This requires considerable humility on the part of many members of the Church Hierarchy, who need to confess to God that they have led the faithfull astray, gravely astray, have failed to inform, failed to teach, failed to warn, failed to evangelise, because they have failed to communicate the terrible truth of Christianity – Hell – and its sublime solution – Heaven. There is no Good News unless there is first bad news and the Church has chosen to stop telling people the appalling bad news: that they are sinners, damned to Hell unless they repent and change their ways. A ‘scandalous’ message, a message that is folly to the elites, the educated, but wisdom to the foolish, the simple, the righteous. A message that has always been hated by men, in their pride, their self-righteousness, and their self-sufficiency, but a message that prefigures the Gospel, for without that brutal,stark truth, the truth of eternal damnation, there is no Gospel, no Good News, and no sovereign God, the God of Love and Justice, who must, to be true to himself, express both facets of his nature: mercy for the repentant; punishment for the unrepentant.