Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Here’s a narrative we’re all by now familiar with. Call it Narrative A:
Those who initially downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 were guilty of wishful thinking, as are those who think the crisis can be resolved either easily or soon. This is what the experts tell us, and we should listen to them. Even though those most at risk of death from the novel coronavirus are the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions, this is a large group. Moreover, many people who won’t die from the virus will still suffer greatly, and even those with mild symptoms or none at all can still infect others. Draconian measures are called for, even at the risk of massive unemployment, the undoing of people’s retirement plans, and the depletion of their savings. Better safe than sorry. To resist these hard truths is to be guilty of “coronavirus denialism.”
This narrative is now widely accepted, and I have nothing to say here in criticism of it. More to the present point, it seems to be widely accepted by Catholic bishops, who have been moved by it to suspend most public access to churches and to the sacraments. I have nothing to say here in criticism of that either.
Here’s another narrative that is also familiar, but less widely accepted. Call it Narrative B:
Those who suppose that few if any people will go to Hell are guilty of wishful thinking. scripture and 2,000 years of teaching from the popes, the saints, and the Church’s greatest theologians. They are the experts and we should listen to them. Even if it turned out that a minority of the human race is damned, this could still be a large number. Moreover, even those who will end up instead in Purgatory will still suffer greatly, and those who teach errors or live immoral lives out of invincible ignorance might lead others into damnation. The call for conversion to the Catholic faith and repentance from sin must be urgently pursued, even at the risk of causing grave offence and inviting serious persecution. To resist these hard truths is to be guilty of “damnation denialism.”
I am well aware that secular readers, universalists, and others will scoff at Narrative B. But this post is not directed to them. It is directed to those who claim to accept the teaching of the Catholic Church, such as the bishops.
The question for these Catholics is this: If Narrative A is compelling, how much more compelling should we find Narrative B? After all, as Christ taught: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Since COVID-19 attacks only the body but Hell entails the perpetual suffering of body and soul, shouldn’t damnation be an even more urgent concern than COVID-19?
Yet most Catholics, including most priests and bishops, have for decades now seemed to regard it as far less urgent. For example, the topic of Hell rarely comes up in contemporary preaching, and when it does the emphasis is not on warning people about it, but rather on reassuring them that probably few souls if any end up there. How is this any better than reassuring people that the coronavirus will probably be no worse than a bad flu?
From the Gospels onward, the Catholic tradition has clearly emphasized urgent warning about Hell rather than reassurance. For example, when asked directly whether “few” would be saved, Christ didn’t give a reassuring answer. On the contrary, he responded:
Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’… There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. (Luke 13: 23-28)
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
How on earth could any rational person try to square such remarks with the thesis that we have good grounds for “hope” for the salvation of all? Yet some of the same Catholics who insist on taking with the utmost gravity the medical experts’ most dire predictions about the COVID-19 death toll seem to respond to Christ’s words with a shrug. Do they take Dr. Anthony Fauci’s expertise more seriously than Christ’s?
This is not even to mention the rest of the testimony of Catholic tradition, from the pessimistic views of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas down to Pope Pius IX’s explicit at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.” of the thesis that “good hope
Of course, many will point to purported counterevidence, such as St. Paul’s observation that God “desires all men to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4). This, they claim, gives us reason to think that maybe Hell will be empty after all. This is an exceedingly weak argument. God also desires all men to avoid sin, but of course, they nevertheless sin all the time. So how does the fact that God desires all men to be saved make it likely that they will all be saved? Maybe they’ll mostly be damned, for the same reason they mostly sin – because of their free choices, with which God does not interfere despite their being contrary to what he desires.
Note that it is irrelevant that it could nevertheless in theory turn out that few are damned, just as Narrative A tells us that it is irrelevant that COVID-19 might in theory have fizzled out without draconian measures. What matters is the realistic possibility of mass damnation, just as what matters is the realistic possibility of mass death from coronavirus. The accent should be on the worst case scenario, not the best. So how is straining to find reassuring passages in scripture any more rational than cherry-picking expert medical opinion that supports the reassuring idea that the coronavirus isn’t much worse than the flu? Why do even many conservative Catholics enthusiastically promote , rather than lamenting him as the of damnation denialism?
Similarly, the Church has always insisted on baptism and conversion to the Catholic faith as crucial to the salvation of the human race. Just twenty years ago, the declaration , issued under Pope St. John Paul II, reaffirmed that, despite the possibility that non-Catholics might receive divine grace:
It is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who [are] in the Church…
Thus, the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, the theme goes all the way back to the Great Commission, wherein Christ directed:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28: 19-20)
Yet one almost never hears contemporary churchmen calling for conversion. On the contrary, they seem to be absolutely terrified of being thought “proselytizers,” and emphasize only “dialogue” and common ground. If a single lockdown policy urgently imposed on the entire world is the only way soberly to address the COVID-19 situation, why is there no urgency about converting non-Catholics to the one true faith so as to save their souls? How is betting on “invincible ignorance” to save most of them any safer than betting on summer weather to knock out the coronavirus?
No doubt there will be Catholics reading this inclined to dismiss it all as excessively harsh, paranoid, an overreaction, etc. But how can they consistently do so if they would condemn those who regard the current COVID-19 lockdown as excessively harsh, paranoid, an overreaction, etc.? How could someone who really believes what the Catholic Church teaches regard damnation denialism as any more respectable than coronavirus denialism?