A Catholic Church Without Hell? Where We Are Headed.

Deal W. Hudson
November 3, 2015

There were many controversial pronouncements made at the Synod on the Family, but it was the “what-would-Jesus-do” comment made by Cardinal Wuerl afterward that really got my attention.

In an Oct. 25 interview with Religion News Service, the cardinal was asked about the final document’s lack of specific recommendations regarding how bishops and priests should change their pastoral care of certain people, such as active homosexuals and divorced Catholics, for example, by allowing them to receive Communion.

Cardinal Wuerl answered,

“The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ But I think the Holy Father has a whole range of opportunities before him. I think we just have to wait and see what he chooses.”

I don’t think I was the only reader of the cardinal’s response who found it classically Protestant.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archdiocese of Washington, DC.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archdiocese of Washington, DC.

Wuerl’s answer could be fairly unpacked this way: Catholics should not first look to the Code of Canon Law on guidance on how to regard homosexuality, homosexual acts, the sacrament of marriage, divorce, or annulment. Rather, Catholics should first consider the Gospels to figure out what to think about these now controversial moral matters, as well as the sacrament of marriage.

I could describe my reaction to this in two ways, first, as being baffled, like Alice in Wonderland, or, second, of being betrayed. I spent ten years reading and praying my way into the Catholic Church before being received at age 34.  Central to that journey was the affirmation that the Church drew its teaching from both Scripture and Tradition, rather than the sola scriptura espoused by the Reformers.

Tradition itself, I learned, grew organically out of Scripture, the revealed Word of God, providing the faithful with a reliable guide to answer the question posed by Cardinal Wuerl, “What does the gospel really say here?”

I had been raised Presbyterian, became a Southern Baptist in college, and attended Princeton Theological Seminary before becoming a Baptist minister in Atlanta. My journey was not merely intellectual but was provoked, in part, by experiences in a Christian denomination that sought to draw its teaching from the immediacy of the Biblical encounter, with a minimal amount of mediation sought from either theology or philosophy. Biblical interpretation and Biblical theology were encouraged, but systematic theology, philosophical theology, or even apologetics were viewed as veering away from the Word.*

Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, Archdiocese of Gatineau, Québec

Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, Archdiocese of Gatineau, Québec

I had already read various comments during the Synod about Catholics putting too much emphasis on doctrine. During a press conference after the second day, Archbishop Durocher answered a question about possible changes to the reception of the Eucharist by divorced Catholics by saying,

“Let’s be honest. Is that a question of doctrine or is that a question of discipline? I think that’s probably going to be one of the questions that will be debated in the small groups. . . . If you want doctrine, go read Denzinger.”

“Denzinger” refers to The Sources of Catholic Dogma first published in 1854 by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger (1819-1883), continuously updated ever since, becoming the accepted research guide to the development of Catholic doctrine. Archbishop Durocher’s comment was clearly dismissive and was taken as such.

I assume this is not what Pope Francis himself meant when he said at the opening session that the Church should not be a “museum of memories.” It’s impossible, at least in my mind, to viewing Tradition as something arising from the past into the present and moving towards the future. If fixed doctrine means a concept that has not changed over many centuries — “We believe in one God” — then it has something of a “museum” quality about it.

Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger (1819 – 1883), Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, trans. Sources of Catholic Dogma.

Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger (1819 – 1883), Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum.

But, if Cardinal Wuerl has accurately represented the substance of the Synod’s discussions and the direction the Holy Father is taking the Church then this question arises in my mind: Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell?

This may seem a large leap, and perhaps it is, but consider the following points. Up for discussion at the Synod were two kinds of mortal sin, homosexual acts and the taking of Communion while being married outside the Church.

Mortal sins, of course, are those “grave matters” committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense, and committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin (#1859 Catechism of the Catholic Church). If a mortal sin is not forgiven, the Church teaches a person will be condemned to Hell after death (#1033 CCC).

Being barred from receiving the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin (#1457 CCC) is a prefigurement of the Hell that awaits the unrepentant, unforgiven mortal sinner.

Code of Canon Law, latest version1983.

Code of Canon Law, latest version 1983.

Orthodox Catholics often say that fundamental Church doctrine cannot be changed, even by a pontiff.  Thus, they would argue, whatever the huffing and puffing of the recent Synod, and whatever Pope Francis may write as a consequence, homosexual acts and marry outside the Church will remain mortal sins, at least according to Denziger, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law!

Yet, after the Synod, there was also the widespread comment that pastoral care had already de facto removed homosexual acts and marriage outside the Church from classification as a mortal sin. (I’m sure this is an exaggeration but assume it applies to many dioceses around the world, especially in Europe.)

As I see it, the present situation is this:

–There are Church “regions” where what the Church officially teaches as mortal sin is not treated as a mortal sin in the name of “pastoral care.”

–In those regions, the belief of being separated from God by mortal sin, and facing the threat of Hell, is being replaced de facto by the view of an All-Loving God Whose Love cannot be confined to doctrinal strictures, such as the “intrinsic evil” of homosexual acts. The Cardinals from these regions were those who attempted to use the Synod to codify their practices.

–The cardinals from the Church’s other regions, especially Africa, defended the Church’s teaching and practice while agreeing that pastoral care should never be withheld from anyone, regardless of the gravity of sin.

–As a result of what I’ve described, the Catholic Church is facing the possibility of a schism. The movement towards schism has been in the making for quite a long time, but the election of Pope Francis allowed the long-held frenzied hatred for John Paul II and Benedict XVI among bishops and Cardinals to find an institutional outlet.

The possible schism itself can be described in the distinction drawn by Cardinal Wuerl between consulting the Code of Canon Law and the Gospels. In other words, some regions of the Church may simply admit they’ve decided to jettison certain uncomfortable portions of Catholic doctrine and become Protestant.

Other regions may not announce any formal break with the Roman Church but pursue and recommend pastoral practices that ignore the moral teaching of the Church, especially regarding sex and marriage. This will very likely also include the ordination of women and removing the ban against contraception.  (After all, we know that if Jesus lived in the 21st century he would have recognized the injustice of excluding women from the priesthood and view over-population as the primary source of global warming!)

Detail from Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel,

Detail from the Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel,

Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell? The true Catholic Church will always teach there is a Hell because not to do so would be to strip the human person of the imago Dei, the free will impressed into his nature by God at creation. But the ersatz church, which is on the rise in Europe and some parts of the Americas, will find that Hell no longer matters to persons whose moral acts cannot separate them from the love of God.

Evangelical Protestants, of course, still believe in Hell. Thus, it’s important to point out that the Protestant gesture heard in Wuerl’s comment did not posit any specific content, but was a distancing from strict adherence to the “rule books” such as the Code of Canon Law and, presumably, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As I said, a schism in the Catholic Church can be avoided, but if not confronted head-on the present situation will eventually cause the Church to splinter. It’s a decisive moment for the people of God who must exert their proper leadership by making their voices heard.

I believe in the good intentions of Pope Francis but fear that he has unwittingly let the Protestant genie out of the bottle, and only with our help, and guided by the Holy Spirit, can the slippery rascal be put back in.

*My conversion memoir, An American Conversion: One’s Man’s Search for Truth and Beauty in a Time of Crisis, was published in 2003.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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