The above quote served as the title for Italian Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli’s article in Rome’s Il Giornale on a statement by Msgr. Charles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after an adoration of reparation to the Blessed Sacrament held at Saint Peter’s Basilica last May 29. Tornielli notes: “Msgr. Scicluna, the ecclesiastical judge following complaints of priestly abuse, recalled that ‘terrible’ condemnation of the Gospel.”1
A Timely Meditation
The importance attributed to the meditation by the illustrious Vatican prelate stands out, particularly in contrast with the silence kept in large sectors of the Church about the existence of Hell and the action of the devil.
Speaking about that silence, Tornielli writes:
The devil as a personal being and the very existence of Hell seem to have almost disappeared, even from homilies, in the last fifty years. The provocation by the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who said that Hell, as far as we know, could be empty, caused a sensation. But the Popes have always stressed not only that the devil exists, but also that there is a possibility of falling into eternal damnation, if one chooses evil.2
While Msgr. Scicluna did not limit himself to speaking about hell but made wonderful considerations, based on the Church Fathers, about Our Lord’s and the Church’s love of children and the role and limits of friendship. He emphasized the torment in hell for consecrated persons who lose their souls.
A Commentary by Saint Gregory the Great
He recalls the terrible words of Our Lord against those who scandalize children: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). He goes on to add a commentary by Saint Gregory the Great:
Gregory the Great says this about those severe words of Jesus: “Mystically expressed in the millstone is the hard and tedious rhythm of secular life, while the deep sea signifies the most terrible curse. Thus, after having taken a profession of holiness, anyone who destroys others through words or deed would have been better off if their misdeeds had caused them to die in secular dress, rather than, through their holy office, being imposed as an example for others in their sins. Without a doubt, if they had fallen all by themselves, their suffering in Hell would be easier to bear.”3
Forgetfulness of Hell and Loss of the Notion of Sin
Hell and eternal punishment exists for those who refuse God’s mercy or the infinite suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for those who disobey the Commandments or abandon the Faith. All this is attested to by Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.4
Oblivion of Hell leads to a loss of the sense of sin, the gravity of the offense done to God and the consequences it entails. For, “if God does not punish” neither in this life nor in the hereafter, His law actually does not oblige because it has no effective sanction and therefore it does not matter whether it is obeyed or not. Thus, one could no longer talk about sin. For if one is not obliged to obey God’s law, there is no harm in not obeying it, as God will not be offended. This is tantamount to saying that God does not care what men do, as the Prophet Sophonias denounced, referring to the inhabitants of Jerusalem who said in their hearts: “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do evil.”5
Following this logic overthrows the last rule of morality, which is to obey God’s law, whether known to us through the Revelation or through man’s rational nature. It also establishes complete amorality.
Who Does not Observe the Commandments, does not Love God
On the other hand, to claim that one can love God without obeying His law is as absurd as to deny His very existence. And it expressly contradicts the Savior’s words:
Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me…. Whoever loves me will keep my word… Whoever does not love me does not keep my word.6
Finally, there is no opposition between God’s mercy and His justice, which would be absurd and contrary to Revelation, for, as the Psalmist says, “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed.”7
Destruction of the Only Effective Barrier Against Sin
Let us return to Msgr. Charles Scicluna’s warning on the reality of eternal condemnation and the sex abuse crisis. The loss of the notion of Hell tears down the most effective barrier separating man from sin: fear of eternal punishment.
Man’s fallen nature is so attracted to sin that, in face of the intense, immediate sinful pleasure, the possibility of a future reward in Heaven alone is inadequate to restrain his passion. Put plainly, because of the effects of Original Sin, man is more inclined to prefer a present joy them eternal beatitude.
Thus Hell’s existence is a powerful, and for the majority of men often the only, effective incentive for the practice of good. Fear of Hell has served to turn countless souls from the path of vice to the love of God and virtue. A reflection attributed to Saint Augustine affirms that, because of Original Sin, if Hell did not exist to punish evil, life here on earth would be transformed into a hell because without fear of future punishment, most men would selfishly seek their own advantage, and few would restrain their passions for the sake of love.8
Although God does not abandon man when tried by temptation,9 the latter must have the necessary readiness to cooperate with divine grace. But if he loses the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom,10 he will not be able to open his soul to supernatural help and will have only his own strength, weakened by naturalist optimism.
For all these reasons, we must express our gratitude for the timely considerations of the Promoter of Justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, amid the difficult circumstances the Church is presently going through.
- Andrea Tornielli, L’inferno non è vuoto «Ci andranno i preti pedofili», Il Giornali, Roma, 30 maggio 2010, http://www.ilgiornale.it/interni/linferno_non_e_vuoto_ci_andranno_preti_pedofili/30-05-2010/articolostampa-id=449159-page=1-comments=1
- Ibid. On the errors of theologian Hans von Balthasar in this regard, see the excellent doctoral thesis by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness – Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, UK, 2007).
- All quotations from Msgr. Scicluna from: Meditation by Msgr. Charles Scicluna, Zenit, May 30, 2010, [Translation by Irene Lagan] http://cantate-domino.blogspot.com/2010/05/meditation-by-msgr-charles-scicluna.html.
- Cf. M. Richard, Enfer, in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Letouzey et Ané, Paris, 1939, t. V (2ème partie), cols. 28-120; Johann Michl, Infierno, in Johannes B. Bauer (ed.) Diccionario de Teologia Bíblica, Editorial Herder, Barcelona, 1967, cols. 512-515.
- Sophonias, 1:12.
- John, 14: 21, 23-24.
- Psalm 84:11 (Douay Rheims Version).
- Cf. Cf. M. Richard, Enfer, loc. cit.
- Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13.
- Cf. Proverbs, 1:7; Psalm 111:10.