Universal Hope

[Much of this was written in response to observations made by my friend Christopher Altieri on my post "Never Despair of God's Mercy."]

When I wrote "radical," I meant that Pope Benedict's observation about Judas is such a trenchant expression of the hope for universal salvation that it is without much precedent among orthodox theologians, let alone popes—as an expression.

But part of the burden of what I was saying is that what he said in that audience talk is not an assertion of mere personal theological opinion. (I don't think that's how the charism of the papal office works.) It is the Gospel as such, and, even in the context of the post-Augustinian grappling with the implications of original sin, it belongs to a centuries-old development of doctrine. The truth of what Pope Benedict said would not have eluded most of the Church fathers (especially of the East). 

The great Augustine, who has meant so much to Benedict and to me, did the important work of differentiating original sin, and thereby the gratuity of grace. But his hypothesis that the massa damnata burns in hell has been found more and more wanting in the growing appropriation of the faith by Holy Mother Church. 

Of most note in this development is one of the most beautiful things done in the history of theology: Saint Thomas Aquinas's proposal of limbo. To die in original sin does not merit hell properly speaking. Rather, he posited a place of natural happiness, though weighed down by the supreme privation of intimate Trinitarian communion, the pathos of which pervades Virgil's journey with Dante in Purgatory.

Aquinas's proposal was one of the greatest acts of authentic liberalization in intellectual history. I love him so much for doing that.

That was an important stage in the ongoing doctrinal development, which I think fairly nicely surveyed in the International Theological Commission's The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized:  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html. That, combined with Henri Rondet's The Grace of Christ, yields a good overview, proving your point about how Pope Benedict's officially taught agnosticism on the ultimate fate of Judas Iscariot is not, substantially, radical at all. 

I myself have come to the view, I think, mostly following the greatest Doctor of Hell, C. S. Lewis, that the notion of an externally imposed (heteronomous) eternal punishment for any finite act completely bankrupt as a philosophical or theological notion, and grotesquely misrepresentative of the goodness of the Father. If any of us humans ends up in hell, it is because that is where we want to be (that is, it is an act of perverse autonomy, not heteronomy). Now, such a choice IS as such a punishment: the supreme punishment is to be left to our lovelessness, separated from the intimacy of the New Jerusalem, the intimacy that alone could quell our infinite desire. To continue to be, when what IS is love, while rejecting that love, means burning in futility.

And we are none of us unfamiliar with those flames. The real question about hell is not what might be lurking in the hidden decrees of God. God is not playing a grotesque game of musical chairs (a belief Hamlet exemplifies, perversely, when he pulls back from killing King Claudius at prayer). Our hope in God's goodness must be absolute. No, the real question is what might be lurking in my own heart. 

That is, I am not so sure that you or I or anyone deserves, as such, hellfire for our sins. I do not see how any finite act, or any sum of finite acts, can merit infinite punishment. (And, of course, there is no question of our deserving, as such, Trinitarian intimacy.) What I do know is that every time I sin, something very dark from the depths of my heart is rearing its head: that willful ego that would choose my reality over Reality. And that person is the kind of person who might find it attractive to reign in hell, rather than serve in heaven. 

Balthasar observes that Jesus opens up heaven and hell simultaneously before the human person (which had been closed before His decisive appearance). It is our Yes to Him that allows us to be led to heaven; it is our No to Him that heads to hell. That No would not be, as such, the commission of a certain crime (any one of the long series of crimes we have all committed). Rather, that No is said in each of our crimes, a choice on my part (not on God's) to have my own Kingdom. We hope in the goodness of the Father that through the Spirit of the Crucified, He will be able to defang and destroy this beast in us. And what I hope for myself, I hope for all. 

So, we agree, and I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to make this clear.

Hell is real. It is filled with myriads of the most powerful persons ever created (angels). It may or may not be the site of my or any other human's eternity. But it is a real possibility for any of us to choose. I hope that the good Father's will that none of us so choose it will prevail in every case.

As for the descriptor "lover of hell": well, it does describe people I have had conversations with. You will, I guess, have to trust that I am not being hysterical in this. I suppose if you looked at some of the more immoderate refusals of Balthasar's simple rehearsal of Gospel truth (a rehearsal, again, less radically expressed than what Pope Benedict officially taught) in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, you might see what I'm talking about. It wasn't simple tendentiousness for Balthasar to label this affect "infernalism." What else accounts for intelligent people refusing to acknowledge Balthasar's repeated distinction between universal hope and universalism? It's not that hard to grasp. So, it seems there's an affective block in play. When we have putative evangelists thinking that preaching the supposed fewness of those who get to heaven essential to evangelization... Well, what I see is a collective psychosis within Western Catholicism, in which a demonic logic of counter-justification has infested otherwise good people. 

They, along with me, are the most in danger of hell, and I pray for their souls. 

I will close with your judicious, and beautiful, words: "Some of the brethren are of the opinion that the faith requires us to confess that hell is peopled. That has been the opinion of many great saints. Absent a bona fide conviction in the necessity of such a belief and confession as de fide, I cannot imagine anyone holding that opinion."