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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”.

  • JabbaPapa

    Obviously, you have no understanding at all of the existence of Free Will.

  • JabbaPapa

    These days, not much …

  • JabbaPapa

     Lovely !!!

  • Dominic MacCarthy

    Our works will be tested by fire, to see if they are of gold or silver, or of wood, straw and hay. A man may be saved, even though by fire, as St Paul says. So hopefully, through Purgatory, many may be saved in the end. The Church does teach that only those who with full knowledge and full consent, remain unrepentant of mortal sin, will actually go to hell for ever.

  • nytor

    One of the problems with mortal sin is that discerning whether something is or not is so difficult. I may have full knowledge, but do I consent fully? Am I impelled by something, such as habit? Can I in a sense be said not to be acting fully freely?

    As for full knowledge, well there are millions of badly catechised Catholics out there who probably haven’t got it.

    A difficulty I have is  – let’s take one example, the Sunday Mass obligation  – that I know that I have to do it, that not to do it is mortal sin, and that if I don’t attend I have to be absolved before I communicate again. But there are millions of Catholics in this country alone who do not know this, and when they go to church, at Christmas say, they merrily communicate in the belief that that is ok. As they don’t know, are they not at fault? and what of the billions of heathen in the world? They certainly neither know that they have to go to mass nor that they are in a state of sin for not doing so.

    Do I, then, risk hell just because of my greater knowledge?

  • Meena

    The “Muslim children” have probably been brought-up in the Islamic Faith since birth by Muslim parents. They may also have received instruction in that Faith from a mosque, since early childhood. 
    Similarly, most Catholics have been brought-up in the Catholic Faith and would find difficulty in adopting another religious faith, or giving-up religious faith all-together.

    “.. provide a school with a ‘Catholic ethos’ that Muslims (or anyone else) can use as and when its suits them and discard subsequently.”

    You can read, in another article here, that this is exactly what Catholics do when they leave Catholic schools. Over 90% give-up their Catholicism – and doubtless others drift away during later life. 

  • Peter

     Being eternally excluded from God’s presence.

  • Alexander VI

    Are you  completely mad?

  • Meena

    it is not those who have studied the sayings and books of the wise men of old who are rational” (St Anthony of Padua)

    The world has moved on since it was widely believed that truth was to be found in old books.

    Rational man would also agree that good is preferable to evil.

  • Meena

    But can he [be good & avoid evil]????? I mean on his own, without the help of Divine Grace. We say “no, he cannot”. 

    Many good people have no religious belief.
    Many religious people are/have been evil.

  • JabbaPapa

    I can attest that mortal sin is like a wound in the very soul.

    It is indescribable, but there is no other desire, if you are Christian, than to seek out most urgently to confess and seek forgiveness.

    It is a pain.

    It is horrible to be separated from the Lord once you have found Him.

    I confess that I have committed mortal sin since my Baptism.

  • JabbaPapa

    Ask that question to your mirror.

    Aelfrid and I have our differences, but neither of us court apostasy.

  • Meena

    I have not prayed (recently) to God and I find (in common with some others) that some APPARENTLY very strange things have happened which COULD relate to past formal prayer or even more recent thoughts. But it’s probably coincidence.

    Then again all atheists are really agnostics (there is PROBABLY no God – but with a 99.9999999……….% probability that this is so!)

  • JabbaPapa

    You are confusing rationality with ethics.

  • JabbaPapa

    Matthew {7:6} Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast
    your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they may trample them under their
    feet, and then, turning, they may tear you apart.

  • Alexander VI

    Father, so good to see that you have provoked the usual high level of theological debate by typical readers of the Catholic Herald…….

  • JabbaPapa

    Aelfrid, I was not aware that you have had a personal revelation too — each to his own measure, but my own was the technicolor cinemascope epic Cecil B. de Mille version of what you describe.

    Well, without all of those 1000s of extras that is …

    YES — God EXISTS !!!!

  • JabbaPapa

    Eternal death.

  • JabbaPapa

    Thank you for your most highestest theology, brother Alexander.

  • JabbaPapa

    Many Catholic Herald blog contributors are trolls with nothing of meaning to contribute.

  • JabbaPapa

    Rubbish !!!

    An agnostic is one who presumes nothing as to the existence or not of God ; an atheist is one who posits God’s non-existence as a creed or basis.

    (ex-agnostic speaking)

    Atheists routinely misunderstand agnosticism.

  • Jason Clifford

    And it is precisely because He is God that you can only come to the Father through Jesus. Nobody else is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Of nobody else is it true that nobody can come to the Father except through Him.

  • Steven Hepburn

    The Catechism has this which seems relevant-
    “1828 The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loved us”:

    If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves. If we pursue the enticement of wages, . . . we resemble mercenaries. Finally if we obey for the sake of the good itself and out of love for him who commands . . . we are in the position of children.”

    I think that since the Council the emphasis has been on attaining salvation or nearness to God through love alone on the basis that perfect love casts out fear. Perhaps too this is an inheritance from St Therese of Lisieux who had no doubts about her salvation. In some ways this is an admirable approach since it suggests that each Christian is capable by grace through faith of attaining the highest possible human state in this life. What is weak about the approach is its failure to fully take into account the deep wound in each of us made by Original Sin. We can grow in grace and obedience but it is a rare gift from God that we should at the moment of conversion reach the highest heights. We need helps along the way on our pilgrimage from the depths of sin and rejection of God to the nearness to Him for which our hearts in their deepest places yearn. For many of us the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom. An awareness of Judgement and of the punishments we have merited should move us to an increased love for the Mercy of God incarnated in the person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And also to an increased realisation of our deep dependence on the prayers offered up on our behalf by the communion of Saints especially those of our Lady, Mediatrix of all Grace.

  • Alexander

    I don’t think there’s anyone here who would disagree with you, Peter.

    But remember, our faith teaches that it’s never a case of ‘either’ compassion for others ‘or’ Sacramental devotion, but instead ‘both’ compassion ‘and’ the Sacraments. Once I realized this, a lot of things fell into place.

  • Meena

    No, you are confused.
    Theists almost invariably misunderstand agnosticism, its many degrees and its (upper) limiting value which is atheism.  

    This was again made clear (here recently) by the responses of some to the photo of Richard Dawkins standing alongside a bus bearing the large sign “There is probably no god”. 
    He is an atheist, but realises that the non-existence of God cannot be proven – it’s simply very, very unlikely.  

  • Tinhthuc

    All is about fear of the unknown.  check out Theology of Fear

  • Herman U. Ticke

    Want to know why Catholics don’t take the idea of damnation seriously
    any more?
    Take a look at this:

    you may like to refresh your memory on the distinction
    between redemption (which is universal) and salvation (which is not.)

    Anticipating the comment oft made in this connection that
    “The Church has never said that any person has gone to Hell”
    the correct version is:
    “The Church has never said that any human person has gone to Hell”
    The devil is in Hell with a multitude of his followers.

  • JabbaPapa

    But God can come to you.

    He is not an abstract, He is real and He is purposeful.

  • JabbaPapa

    I am utterly unsurprised that you do not understand agnosticism.

    HINT : it’s NOT just atheism with a different name.


    And FFS reference to your holy man Dawkins is now “evidence” ???


  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    There are four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance – as both Catholic and Orthodoxes Churches still teach. Two only are ‘ignoring the needs of the poor’.

    They are:

    Not paying a worker his due wages
    Not aiding a widow or orphans. 

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Jabba, one day we will meet up and exchange stories. God bless you.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Excellent post and link.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Cynicism and sardonic mind make you happy?

    I doubt it.

  • JabbaPapa


  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    A. VI is no Catholic Jabba. He’s thinks he’s funny choosing such a blog name, but really he’s just another sad and cynical atheist.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Jabba, very important link on Martini. Please read it if you have a moment.

  • DJM

    Yes, really good response. Meena makes a valid point and you strike it off as ‘nothing of meaning’. How about you try and give a proper answer to:

    Many good people have no religious belief.
    Many religious people are/have been evil. 

  • JabbaPapa

    I often object to Rorate’s more exaggerated views concerning non-traditionalism.

    When they attack modernism or relativism, fine, super !!! — but I do draw the line when they start attacking people simply for being non-traditionalists …

    Character assassination is also not a literary genre that appeals to me, especially not when provided by people with enough gall to start such attacks with an article entitled de mortuis nihil nisi bonum … the stench of hypocrisy fills the air !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    Because she has repeatedly demonstrated herself to be impervious to ideas that contradict her atheist dogmatics.

    As for your repeat of her comments — the sky is also blue, just as water is wet.

    Ethics meanwhile continue to exist independendently of materialist clichés.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Nevertheless, the Italian journalist offers some opinions of the man’s life & work which deserve to be read carefully and with consideration.

  • Joanna Ionescu

     Well, it is not difficult to answer that. Grace does not boast, nor Jesus. If God isTruth, Goodness, Love, then whoever is after truth and makes an effort to be good and loving is already benefiting from grace even if anonymously. Vice versa, sacraments do  not operate in an automatic fashion.

  • awkwardcustomer

    “The Church has never said that any human person has gone to Hell”

    I didn’t know that.  Has the Church never pronounced on the eternal fate of Judas Iscariot? 
    Or if not actually pronounced, then have any Churchmen given their opinions?

  • theroadmaster

    The main purpose of the Church is to save souls and to that end Her mission is to preach the Good News to all ends of the earth and to embrace all humanity.  The founding of churches, schools, dispensaries, schools are ultimately not ends in themselves but are manifestations of the Faith which is at the heart of the Christian gospels.  After Vatican 11,  this reality seems to have dissipated in some religious quarters in the global Church, as the focus of some religious and lay-people has become fragmented due to certain ideological concerns which trump other more important issues .  We can see these inconsistencies in the stress that those on the left(I feel uncomfortable using such secular, political labels for Church topics) give to social issues like unemployment, world hunger, etc but are ideologically blind to the abominable scandal that abortion is.  Catholic belief gives a context for these issues and it stresses the inherent worth of each human being and their place in Salvation  history.   Over recent decades, the theological reality of Heaven and hell and the Last Judgement have also been demoted to give way to a more psychologically comforting vision of sin without serious consequences.  This has fed into the near extinction of sacramental confession in many parishes as people do not consider the importance of declaring their sins before God to their local parish priest.  While one does not want a return to “fire and brimstone” sermons in the past which put unhealthy fears into the hearts and minds of too many Faithful and therefore acted as impediments to the free reception of God’s Grace, the Church should return to the basics concerning Good and evil

  • andHarry

      “In the Great Deluge in the days of Noah, nearly all
    mankind perished, eight persons alone being saved in the Ark.”

    Great to see that Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, Doctor of the Church, believed in Noah and the Great Deluge

  • andHarry

     Mary is way over-rated as a mediator. In fact she tried, like Peter, to thwart Christ’s mission. She thought He was out of His mind, and, with her other sons, attempted to put Him away. Her repentence eventually, at the foot of the cross, saw her joined with those mothers, brothers and sisters who do God’s will.

  • Meena

    You invent many things for your convenience.

    BTW you seem to me to be an agnostic who is anxious to convince others of the “truth” of his religion in order to convince himself.

  • Parasum

    If it were possible to “like” this ten times, it would get ten “like”s.

    How many people realise that to do any good works *at all*, the free grace (redundant description, but it seems to be needed) of God is absolutely essential ? 

    Priests have unrivalled opportunities, countless opportunites, to drive home this point. Do they avail themselves of them ?

    STM the lack of emphasis on grace is a (wholly needless) side-effect of Reformation controversies, combined with some of the more dodgy notions of some Jesuit theologians. If the CC allows doctrines that allow grace to be neglected, that is its fault. St. Ignatius Loyola was wiser.

    There is far too much of a tendency nowadays to affirm the goodness – or, God help us, the holiness – of what is human or created, merely on the ground of its being human or created. This obscures the Otherness of the God Who is Holy, & is Holiness. This is muddled thinking, and a great pity, because we have the opportunity, thanks to certain recent theologians, to deepen our understanding of grace & nature, instead of confusing grace and nature.  

  • Meena

    A brain disorder or drugs (perhaps ingested unknowingly) can give rise to “supernatural” experiences.

  • Johannes

    I take great solace from your posts Ælfrid.

    As one who was educated in the faith in the 80s and 90s, people like yourself are a sort of catechetical balm to my now re-flourishing faith.

    Than you.

  • Parasum

     “…the theological reality of Heaven and hell and the Last Judgement have
    also been demoted to give way to a more psychologically comforting
    vision of sin without serious consequences.”

    ## If only  people would point that out, and put it right.