Tag Archives: Catholic

Toast and lemons, or why love is stronger than hell.

This morning I read this post on a blog by one of my university friends. She writes from a very different background to me but that doesn’t mean we don’t find common theological ground sometimes. This morning was not one of those times. I am not suggesting she is wrong to encourage Christianity centred around love – it is the idea that there is an alternative with which I take issue.

As I read the post, I was struck by what seemed to be a very particular understanding of hell. It’s not made explicit (and doubtless she’ll be quick to correct me if I’m mistaken!) but it seemed to be a very old-fashioned point of view, laced with fire and brimstone and, to quote her illustration choice, “tortured lost souls burning forever”. It also has a certain physicality to it – the preaching she is questioning wants lost souls to avoid being sent to hell, as though three-year-old me was correct to think heaven was a place just above the sky and hell was somewhere underground. This worldview caused brief consternation on a summer holiday to Wales in the same year, when somebody asked if the hole I was digging in the sand was to get to Australia. Wouldn’t you have to dig through hell to do that? That didn’t seem like a very good idea at all. You can imagine my relief when Mum told me you couldn’t really dig to Australia, though I’m not sure at what point I realised that hell being in the way was not the precluding factor.

Intercontinental travel is no longer my primary issue with this understanding of hell, though. My biggest concern is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of everything else I understand and believe, and that was glaringly apparent to me as I read the post this morning. My main (though related) point of contention, however, was in the conditional – if love and hell work in the sort of binary opposition that is suggested, it seems if nothing else to be logically inconsistent to treat one as an experience or way of being and one as a place or at least conditions to be under. More often, we see heaven and hell held in opposition and had that been the case here I might have agreed more with the argument (though, as should become clear if it isn’t already, I still don’t think of them as physical destinations when I leave this mortal coil). The problem I have is the suggestion that a focus upon love is an a better point of departure for Christianity than a focus upon hell. To me that is devastatingly understated – love is stronger than hell because it has to be the only point of departure.

Love

As far as I’m concerned, love is the most powerful force in existence. You don’t have to look at the world from a Christian point of view to see that – there are countless examples of the extremes individuals go to when motivated by love. Sometimes we call it different things – bravery, kindness, goodness, strength – but it all boils down to love in the end. Most of us are fortunate enough to know the searing intensity of love first hand, be it shown to us or by us, in our relationships with partners, family or friends. For Christians love is the foundation of the relationship with God too. From the outside looking in that can be very difficult to understand, but just because something is different does not mean it is complicated. The clearest explanation I can think of from is a short remark a friend once made when describing his own relationship with God:

I’m His boy.

Even though I am notoriously bigandmeanandtoughandstrong I found that short sentence incredibly emotive. It’s so simple and yet intimate, and I was struck by how straightforward he made it sound. He was completely right, though.

Sometimes when I’m on my political soapbox I like to talk about the “real human impact” of policies and how important it is to think about how the theory plays out in the real world. That doesn’t mean we let emotion or sentimentality preside over reason and sense, but that we remember that politics is not just theoretical. It’s the same with theology too. Academic theology is important to me as a Catholic because, as with everything else in my life, I can only sincerely believe in something if it satisfies my head and my heart. I find myself suspicious of theologies that encourage an overly emotive foundation over reason and intellectual consistency because I think it makes a mockery of what faith means. Faith demands that we acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to know and to understand, not that we altogether dispense with reason and rationality. Similarly, philosophical arguments matter most when they have a practical impact in the real world. The challenge of belief is holding all of these ideas in balance, without overcomplicating things to the point that it loses meaning. Love challenges us similarly.

Like belief, love is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly simple. We know what love means, but how do we balance the sort of abstract love with the tangible love we might experience at any given moment? Ask me if I love my family and I’ll immediately tell you I do; ask me why and I might struggle to articulate it because here and now on a train it’s an intellectualised sort of love that governs my relationship with them. At the same time, though, there are moments when that bond feels more immediately real – that overwhelming feeling of being sad and far away from home, or those moments where pride burns in your heart, the waves of relief when somebody returns to you safely. It doesn’t mean I only love my family at those moments of intensity though – both types of love are real and both matter. I once argued fiercely with a tutor who refused to believe anybody could sincerely love a stranger because he did not think an abstract love of humanity was equally true on a specific level. I told him he was wrong and confusing possibility with difficulty and he told me I was being unrealistic. I told him that abstracts were as ‘real’ as you were prepared to make them them, and I stand by that.

When we talk about love in a Christian sense it’s exactly the same. Love is something that we feel in our everyday life and its also a conceptual belief that governs that everyday life. Experience alone should tell us all that you don’t have to be a Christian to love or be loved, you just have to be. However, how can I say that love is fundamental to Christianity and yet say that Christianity is not fundamental to love? Easily, fortunately, and helpfully without being a massive heretic too:

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Christianity teaches that God is love, which is difficult to understand in any meaningful way as long as we’re thinking of God as a bloke in the sky, or even as something somewhere. As with heaven and hell, thinking spatially makes the questioning easier but the answering harder. “God is love” just means that when we talk about God we’re talking about the truest form of love – if all of the things that we think of when we think about love are lemon-flavoured, God is a really lemony lemon. If God (in completeness) is greater than anything we can ever imagine and if God is love, then that means that love is necessarily ‘bigger’ than Christianity and also that love has to be Christianity’s point of departure. Just bog-standard, run of the mill love. The fact that love happens to tend to be extraordinary and life-changing is just incidental.

Hell

Now that we’re clear on what I mean by love, hell is a lot easier to explain. Love can operate in one direction but in a relationship it is reciprocated. If you love somebody but the feeling is unrequited it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them enough. Equally, their decision to reject you does not undermine the integrity of your love. By the same reasoning, if a person chooses not to love God that does not mean that God does not love them or tell us anything about the strength or integrity of God’s love. Just as your friend might tell you that the object of your affection is missing out by not wanting to be in a loving relationship with you, I believe that I would be missing out if I didn’t choose to be in a relationship with God. Whilst it would not change what I am or where I am, it would make my life very different. That state of being is what hell means – it is not where you are, but how you are.

Given my background, you might be surprised by that idea. However, though Catholicism has a reputation for promulgating a particularly fierce doctrine of hell, that does not mean that hell is to be understood literally. The Church also teaches that hell is to be understood as a state of being. The Catechism states:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves […] To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell”.

There are those who will have recoiled as soon as I even came close to suggesting the word ‘metaphor’ but it does not meanthat hell should be taken any less seriously. If someone tells you they are “in a dark place” you do not worry about them less if they are not shut in a wardrobe. Not believing in a literal place with literal fire does not make hell a less fearsome prospect. The only respite we have in life is the knowledge that everything is temporary. The choices we make, be it whether or not to have a slice of toast or whether or not to have a relationship with God, are not forever. We make the choice and we live by it, and if that means I’m hungry by 11am, I just have to face the consequences and remember to have a piece tomorrow. Life is temporary too, though, and if I get hit by a bus and killed on my way home, suddenly I can never have a piece of toast again. Admittedly that would be the least of my worries (I can’t actually eat bread anyway so it’s a weak analogy) but you see my point – we never know when a choice will become irreversible. The way in which I understand God and love means that my life would be worse without them. Even though sometimes other options seem more appealing, I know it’s not what I want in the long term. To be without them for eternity would be a hell that is worse than I can imagine, colloquially and literally.

Love vs Hell

All of this is why I disagree with the original post. It’s not the sentiment I disagree with – as I’ve said, I think if anything it understates how central love is to Christianity. The problem I have is with ideas of hell (and indeed sin and judgement) that are formed independently from the understanding of love, because, all else aside, I don’t see that they can ever make sense. Certain branches of Christianity spend a lot of time and spill a lot of ink worrying about how to convince people that the “Good News” is really good, and not enough time worrying about the consistency of their theology. If you put any proposition to me and ask me to believe it, I’m going to be less concerned with how nice it sounds and more worried about whether or not it makes sense. As a Christian, you presumably believe the news is good, so I struggle to understand why it needs to be dressed up to make it appeal to others. Real conviction and real relationships aren’t based on rose-tinted glasses and that’s as important to remember wherever you stand in terms of Christianity.

In life, it’s okay to fear hell, be that toastlessness or Godlessness. In fact it’s pretty sensible, far more so than avoiding thinking about it or talking about it because it doesn’t sound appealing. Equally though, there are far more powerful and constructive influences than scaremongering. If you ever need a starting point for anything, love is stronger than hell.

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And now for something completely different.

I want to begin this post with a disclaimer and an admission. Some days, when I’m not overhearing other people’s conversations or writing inane lists, I have serious thoughts about serious things. Mostly I just add those thoughts to an inane list and ramble in person about it to anyone who foolishly gives me an opportunity to do so. Today is a little different, because today people were asking for my thoughts before I’d thought about them. As per, I’ve been out flouncing around art galleries all day, so (and here’s the first part of that disclaimer) I am writing this on my phone, on the tube, with only a cursory glance at the headlines and half an hour of BBC news videos as evidence. Next the admission: people wanted my thoughts today because as well as being a young woman, I am also a Catholic and a theologian by trade. I think that’s probably given away the news in question, but let me add the second part of my disclaimer before I begin: this is incredibly reactionary. I realise that what I have to say will cause some people to tell me I’m a bad feminist and/or a bad Catholic, but I don’t profess to be very good at either. I do try my best to be a decent human in general though, so hopefully you can cut me a little slack. I don’t have all the answers – I don’t even have all the questions – and if you ask me again tomorrow I might have changed my mind. If you are still reading at this point, I salute you. If you don’t want to hear my thoughts about the resignation of the Pope, now is your cue to leave – I’ll write you a silly list soon. For the rest of you, excuse the seriousness and let’s cue the titles.

Papal Audience, 2009

This morning news broke that at 8pm on 28th February, Pope Benedict XVI will resign from his office at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first time this has happened for 600 years and, understandably, the ripple of reaction has spread around the world. This particular drop in the ocean of response is inherently personal but carries with it whatever insight is afforded by being a young catholic, a feminist and (in education at least) a theologian. It will almost certainly be at odds with the views of some Catholics, some feminists and some young people, but it is an honest attempt to provide an initial response from a personal point of view, and to answer the five questions that have been put to me repeatedly today.

On the practical implications:

After 8pm on 28th February, the current Pope will no longer be referred to as His Holiness and will be known again as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It is expected that he will take some time away at the summer residence while his successor is appointed. Though as a cardinal he ought to attend conclave, his age precludes him from voting. After this, he will live elsewhere in the Vatican. The implications of the current Pope living in close proximity to the newly elected Pope seem widely assumed to be negative. This is not necessarily the case. Cormac Murphy O’Connor commented today “Who would want to be Pope?” –  I wonder whether the answer might be ‘someone who has the voice of experience close at hand’ (This might be particularly relevant for one of his potential successors, as we will see).

There has been some debate regarding the resignation in general – given John Paul II’s stoic sense of the papacy as a life-long duty in particular, but also simply in terms of whether the office is ‘just a job’. I think the Pope has more than addressed this in his speech, which you can read here. ‘Resignation’ is our language, but put simply, the Pope has been entitled to renounce his office for the best part of 800 years. Our sensationalist tendencies will no doubt draw out countless dramatic comparisons with the last Pope to do so, Gregory XII, who stood down in 1415 at an incredibly difficult time in the Church’s history. I would suggest a better comparison might be with Celestine V, the Pope who passed the decree which made it possible in 1294. A Benedictine, he too was considered old at his succession, and stepped down after five months in office citing his waning physical strength amongst his reasons for doing so. At the top of Celestine V’s list, however, was the desire for humility, and I think that same humility is characteristic of  Benedict XVI’s decision too.

Today’s news left me sad, but also deeply encouraged – I cannot even begin to imagine the pressure that he must have felt and the personal anguish that coming to this decision must have caused. Yet it was a decision taken entirely in private, away from the external pressures that (until now) have characterised his papacy, and with a focus solely upon the best way to lead the Church in accordance with God’s will. I struggle to call to mind a better example in modern times of the courage and humility required to set aside self-interest for the sake of the Church. In purely practical terms, it is an action that is, literally, crucially Christian.

On the timing of the decision:

Again, the timing of this announcement reflects a degree of humility in its Kantian disinterest (that is to say its setting aside of self-interest). The Pope understands first hand the pressure of succeeding a Pope who has died – the demands of leading the Church through their mourning, the potential for the suddenness of the transition and the uncharacteristic urgency that all of this adds to the office. The Pope is far from rude health and, to be practical rather than morbid, his increasing ailment and advancing years mean that, were he to continue in office, there would be the very real potential of that issue arising again. Though there have been many criticisms levelled at him, it is perhaps a product of my respect for him as a theologian that I would defy anyone who argued that he does not have an acute awareness of the needs of the Church. Hans Kung might be appalled to hear me describe Joseph Ratzinger as one of the greatest living theologians, but I truly believe that he is, and this insight has informed his papacy. He fully understands that this is, in many ways, a time of great vulnerability for the Church; he fully understands the need for the Church to play the game and not just watch from the touchlines. By affecting the transition of the papacy in this way, he is allowing his successor to keep a firm grip of the wheel, affording him as few complications as possible.

Some will argue that the Pope’s resignation heightens the urgency of this ‘crucial moment’. Perhaps so, but perhaps equally there is little point in postponing the inevitable. To labour the earlier analogy, there is no time out in this game. It seems particularly relevant that the announcement comes in the wake of the publication of The Pope’s Jews. Critics love to play on Benedict XVI’s experiences in the Hitler youth, almost as much as they enjoyed criticising the apparent inertia of the Vatican at that time of crisis. The publication of this book challenges that perception, but has a wider message that is relevant: firstly, to quote the author, Gordon Thomas, “The church thinks across centuries. If there’s a dispute for 50 years, so what?” – the priority is upon action not upon the perception of that action; secondly, public perception of the inner workings of the Vatican is not always right. My point is this – I believe it would be incredibly naive to argue that the Pope’s decision is a reaction to scandal or contemporary issues that face the Church. This is not a cowardly man running away from the moment but an astute leader ensuring that the moment does not run away from his Church.

It is also no coincidence that his resignation will take effect at the heart of Lent – what better spiritual narrative to accompany a time of testing and assert the triumph of faithfulness? The appointment of his successor should take place before Easter – what better time to begin a new chapter?

On the theological implications:

I doubt that there is enough ink in the world to satisfy the amount that could potentially be spilled debating the theological implications of this decision. Certainly the Pope appears to be setting a precedent for departure from expectation, but we must be careful to hold this in tension with a theology and a papacy that has been markedly conservative in nature. We might more accurately argue that this decision is a further expression of that which has underpinned his conservative stance, namely that acute awareness of the vulnerability of the Church. Once again, I think it helpful to bear in mind the idea that the Church thinks across centuries. It has not existed for thousands of years by being bowing to the pressures of modernity. That is not to say that it should be an institution immune to criticism or progression of thought, but to say that there is sound political and theological underpinning to cautious conservatism. Under the weight of that responsibility Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s words today once again loom large.

The Guardian today published a list of pressing issues that it believes await the new Pope when he is elected. You can read that list here. Are all of these issues immediately thrown wide open with the succession of a new Pope? In short, I think the answer is no – as we have seen, the Church’s conservative stance is the product of more than papal opinion. In theological terms, I see most scope for potential flexibility in terms of the Church’s position on contraception and homosexuality, when addressed in terms of the dignity of the person, but the repercussions of that line of reasoning leave little room for a change of perspective regarding abortion and the role of women in the clergy. I am perhaps in a minority of feminists who would not see this as a bad thing – I do not see abortion as the absolute right of a liberated woman and I do not see a male priesthood solely as an arbitrary reinforcement of the history of patriarchy. I am less clear of the extent to which I am in a minority of Catholics by seeing room for a revisitation of the former two issues. Perhaps conversely with this line of theological reasoning, I do not expect to see much engagement with the issue of equal marriage – that cautious conservatism that has preserved the Church’s longevity will presumably encourage the new Pope to watch as that issue unfolds in the Church of England first.

On succession:

On the subject of the new Pope, I am entirely in agreement with Patrick Kelly, who told a BBC reporter today that there was no point in playing a guessing game. Understandably, this will not discourage the world from speculating, presumably by the same logic that encourages people to take gambling odds from Paddy Power on Bono or Father Dougal Maguire as the next in line of apostolic succession.

The media will probably be excited by four or five main candidates. Peter Turkson of Ghana, Fracis Arinze of Nigeria and Leonardo Sandri of Argentina will doubtless appear at the top of many lists with good reason. As well as their individual merits, there is a real unifying value in electing a Pope who has a direct engagement with theologies of liberation, as all of these men have –  that said, we might argue that the young Joseph Ratzinger’s experiences in Germany went some way towards that. I think however, there is a particular challenge to be addressed by the Church in Africa and South America at present, which needs strong leadership in an immediate capacity. There is much ground to be covered in establishing a truly universal church and a sense in which the leadership of a ‘liberation Pope’ in Rome might still be too countercultural to be productive. Slow progress perhaps, but there is a theological argument for it yet. Similarly, timing might go against another media favourite, Timothy Dolan from New York. The presence of America in the current socio-political climate might be of detriment to the effectiveness of the papacy; as much could be said for any potential ‘super-power Pope.’

At present, there are three potential candidates who seem most likely. Canadian Marc Oullet has all of the cosmopolitan appeal of Timothy Dolan whilst remaining theologically close to the current Pope. On the surface he seems to fit with the potential theological trajectory outlined above, but it is difficult to tell how deeply his conservatism runs – he is best know for his strong stance on abortion, but that is hardly indicative. Age is also on his side – he is not yet 70. Another strong candidate is Angelo Bagnasco, the current Archbishop of Genoa. He is intellectually well respected, multi-lingual and has spoken prominently (and critically) of Italian culture and the negative role models provided by Silvio Berlusconi and other key figures. He is regarded as the Pope’s lieutenant in Italy, and seems to have a good sense of the interplay between secular issues and theology.

The most obvious candidate to me, however, is Gianfranco Ravasi who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture. As such he is acutely aware of all of the theological issues that are currently prominent, as well as of the importance of dialogue and interplay between the Church and other cultures. He is a renowned Biblical scholar based in Rome, and combines a natural charisma with a keen intellect and media awareness. His main weakness is the fact that he has never been bishop of a large archdiocese, so his pastoral credentials are somewhat unproven. However, given his strengths in all other areas, and with the unprecedented presence of a former Pope living in the Vatican, he seems the ideal candidate. As mentioned previously, this circumnavigates the potential difficulties of the presence of a ‘dowager-Pope’, who instead becomes an invaluable source of support without undermining papal authority. It is a scenario that is unprecedented, but by no means impossible.

On conspiracy theories:

The internet will undoubtedly explode with a wealth of conspiracy theories, including plenty which will compensate for the underwhelming Mayan Apocalypse we experienced in December. Dan Brown is unlikely to be seen for weeks. Nevertheless, there is probably enough intellectual stimulation in the facts alone to keep the rest of us from concerning ourselves with wild speculation.

Ultimately, today’s news will, I hope, become this Pope’s legacy for the right reasons. His approach to the gravity of the decision is a testament to his character as a man and as a Christian, and a brilliant example of his theological insight. It shows a reverence for the authority of the see prioritised above the holder, and so rightly orientated towards God, but also shows an awareness of the contemporary world and the importance of stability in transition. It is a heartbreaking decision that is incredibly brave and demonstrates both wisdom and humility. It is an example to all, and inspirationally encouraging in faith.

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