Preaching and catechizing on the last end

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

In a chapter dedicated to the crisis of last end predication (death, particular judgement and general judgement, hell, paradise, and also purgatory), Guillaume Cuchet concludes: “This rupture in Catholic preaching has created a deep discontinuity in the content preached and lived through of religion on both sides of the nineteen-sixties. It is so obvious that an outside observer could legitimately ask himself whether, beyond the continuity of a name and of the theological apparel of dogmas, it is still the same religion.”[1]

The pre-conciliar erosion of last end predication

In this domain as in others, the “great rearrangement” (Guillaume Cuchet) provoked by Vatican II, including in the doctrines it did not itself re-examine as in the case for man’s last end, has been preceded by a long and progressive internal degradation. The latter accelerated, in many ways, starting at the time of the last war, before the brutal collapse which followed. So it is about the crisis in priestly and religious vocations diminishing regularly, before finally crumbling down starting right around 1965. An image comes to mind, too sharp probably, the one of the ghostly city of the Brazilian Sertão, describe by Michel Bernanos in L’envers de l’éperon, a city with walls and monuments eaten away by termites and ready to collapse at any time.

At the end of the 1950s, Julien Green, in his journal, made repeated allusions to the fact that last end were spoken of with hesitation. A powerful testimony of this situation is found in Jacques Maritain’s work written in 1961, “Eschatological ideas”, which was eventually published posthumously in Approches sans entraves[2]. The author draws a surprising story which comes down to the cancelling of the despair of the damned: eventually forgiven after the last judgement, they are carried into limbo (Maritain thus still believed in it) where they enjoy natural felicity as the one known by children who died without baptism. It was a discreet remake of the theory of Origen, so-called Apocatastasis, “re-establisment”, which holds that the pains of hell are not eternal, a proposition condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople.

Post-conciliar decline

Yet, in this area as in others, the great change in predication took place with the start of the Council. In the extensive bibliography on the subject, we always find listed the religious history thesis of Yves Lambert, Dieu change en Bretagne: la religion à Limerzel de 1900 à nos jours[3]. In regards to our subject of interest, Lambert shows that in the parochial bulletin of Limerzel, purgatory and hell were addressed till 1965, at the time the Council ends, after that, it ceased to be addressed completely.

Hans Urs von Balthazar could not be mistaken for a progressive. Yet, in his overall belief, his thesis on hell, to which Mgr Christopher J. Kruijen, author of the article that follows has responded, is not marginal but truly at the heart of his theology. Scripture forbids the denial of the possibility of damnation, conceded Balthazar, but he wondered about the possibility de facto and even de jure of damnation: “We don’t know if a human liberty is capable of refusing itself till the end to the offer the Spirit makes to give it its proper and actual freedom.”[4] In other words, according to Balthasar, we don’t know if man is capable of sinning without remission. The theologian from Basel who without hesitation placed in paradise the worst of unrepentant criminals, was not supported by confreres more progressive than he, such as Edward Schillebeeckx, op, who saw death for the worst sinners as the end of everything. As for Gustave Martelet, he borrowed from Jean Elluin “the surgical hell”, a sort of super purgatory which destroys in the soul of great sinners all the evil part of their will and leaves, after an “excruciating separation”, the small amount of good will in the beatitude.

The decline actually continued, sometimes of its own: “May God have mercy, and the Holy Church, if I go too far in these hypothesis”, wrote the very classical and Thomist Fr. Marie-Joseph Nicolas, op, in his Court traité de théologie (Desclée, 1990), who came to lean towards theories of the post-mortem evangelism, with a “metaphysic moment” past clinical death when the soul is able to make an ultimate choice in full light. And even leaning towards the hypothesis of a possible repentance for the damned, a “conversion from hate to love”.

But if hell has disappeared, purgatory is not better considered: priests who still speak about it in homilies at funerals are seen as “rigid”. Furthermore, commentaries and homilies for funeral masses, no matter the kind of life lead by the deceased, suppose his/her immediate “entry into heaven”. The interment becomes “heavenment”[5]. The supernatural vision of dying as a return of the soul of the deceased to the Divine Judge disappears in favor of the celebration of the earthly life of the dead. Often, it is true, the families are the one responsible for this apology of the deceased, but very few priests try to limit them in this erroneous approach of funerals and many encourage them. As a result, not only people no longer pray for the repose of the soul of their departed, they also don’t ask for masses to be said for them, nor do they apply indulgences to alleviate their time in purgatory. And in the event that the deceased did practice and make profession of Catholicism, they are already, without restraint, asking for his prayers from heaven.

We are in the heart of a liberal theology where everything is acceptable, or rather where everything crumbles. The necessity to belong to the Church to be saved fades away, or similarly, is presumed to exist in everyone of us: ecumenism, marked by its “imperfect communion” of those separated and the inter-religious dialogue, by its “sincere respect” of other religions, poses in principle that all men are part in a certain way of the Church and are engaged on the path of salvation.

Likewise the horror of the rupture caused by sin and preventing the union to Christ is simply erased. We had the opportunity to speak about this common heresy which rejects the original sin[6]. Directly or indirectly, the very vast majority of contemporary theologians deny the historic character of original sin, unwilling to say that the father of humanity committed a sin of disobedience which lead him to lose the grace of God and the gifts that came with it, in such a way that Adam transmitted a wounded human nature to all his descendants. This relativization of the faith in regards to the original sin is strengthened by the generalize abandonment of the doctrine on limbo or, to be more precise, the fact to state that children who die without baptism before the age of reason yet can enjoy the beatific vision[7].

Overall it is mortal sin which is not just denied but is no longer felt as putting the soul in a state of objective hate of God. And by the fact, the life of grace of the soul and the virtu of charity are generalized and de facto depreciated: if sin doesn’t really exist, divine life in the soul is only but a tearaway and the love that God has for us, hardly jealous and without demands, a caricature.

The moral message thus is reduced to a vain discourse, specially the message regarding marriage and moral as found in Humanæ vitæ, considered prophetic, that is to say in fact showing an ideal thus without truly obligating. A message now simply reduced to Amoris lætitia, an exhortation allowing people living in a state of public adultery to remain in this state without committing a grave sin (n.301). This decline worsened in the period right after the Council, with the departure of many priests and religious who were and are as many scandals strictly speaking. Priest and religious publicly abandoning celibacy gives an excuse for lay faithful to pick and choose in regards to moral.

Not to fear the pain of hell

Jean de Viguerie had actively criticized Jean Delumeau calling “pastoral of fear” the teaching and the preaching from the Middle Ages to the end of the XVIII century, and even up to Vatican II. According to Viguerie it was a fashionable theme among Christians of the seventies who applied their aspirations to a religious history brought together in a very approximative way[8]. Delumeau and his followers “des-historize” (Sylvio Hermann De Franceschi) writings, sermons, etc., of the past, in other words have a reading according to their own moral, that of today. In reality, the serious historic debates is about the development of the Jansenist and Gallican rigorism counterattacked by a moral so called “Jesuit”, Molinist, Alphonsian.

Yet, it is saint Ignatius himself who in his spiritual Exercises, proposes a meditation on the most objectively terrifying of realities, hell: “I will see with the sight of imagination the great fires, and the souls of the damned as in bodies of fire (n.66). I will hear, with the ears wailings, howling, cries, blasphemies against Jesus Christ Our Lord and against all His Saints (n.67). I will imagine smelling the smell of smoke, sulphur, dregs and putrid things (n.68).” He gives beforehand the all simple and balanced motivation of this exercise he offers: “I will ask for interior sense of the pain which the damned suffer, in order that, if, through my faults, I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of the pains may help me not to come into sin (n.65).”

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises have for a goal to prepare us for important decision making, elections, notably the response to a vocation, after a purification of the soul, and a blazing generosity in the mist of indifference, that is to say a full abandonment to God’s will, which would have to be the most rightly sensitive to the motions by which the Holy Spirit intervenes in the soul. It is in the general process only a “first week”, the first step of a forty day retreat dedicated to be a time of purification, according to a very simple structure which lead the retreatant to meditate on two topics: sins (sin of angels, original sin, mortal sin) and hell, these meditations being accompanied by prudent yet serious penance. After what, the exercitant shall continue onto the following steps to hear the call of the Lord Jesus, while meditating His life, His Passion, His Resurrection.

This program of predication, often condensed into eight days, has been developed in the spirit of the spiritual renovation of Christianity which followed the Council of Trent. Many other types of exercises, whether inspired by those of saint Ignatius, or with a similar goal, have then flourished abundantly. For example the parochial missions, a sort of retreat destined to the widest number of faithful to renew their fervor. These saw a great development in the XVII and XVIII centuries, but also in the XIX and all the way to the dawn of the 1960s. These missions started with a pressing invitation to purification, by means of predications on the sense of existence, death, sin, hell, purgatory, to lead to days reserved for confessions, often general confessions of past life, what disposed the participants to afterwards listen with the best  of dispositions the sermons on beatific life, the love of God and neighbor, the necessity for prayer, the practice of mass and the sacraments, the commandments of God and the Church, the exercise of virtue, the forgiveness of trespasses, the reconciliation with one’s enemies, etc.

The necessary condition of a religious renovation requires putting back in its place of honor a predication on purification and on penance – asceticism in life, confession – through exercises or missions in a format adapted to present possibilities, by individual spiritual help – the spiritual direction under all its forms -, and moreover, more generally, in the ordinary predication, the teaching of catechism, the doctrinal and spiritual formation.

Funerals give a particular favorable possibility to develop this predication, even to a public without a regular connection with religion and that the death of a close relative can place in dispositions of the greatest receptivity. Is it necessary to highlight the fact that this invitation to purification is by nature eminently anti-modern.

It appears that the integration of last end in predication in the wider sense of the term – a teaching that is spoken, preached, as well as written – is as much important in terms of a realistic pastoral because of the theology it implies, than the turning of the altar in the liturgy. To this reorientation of the pastoral we find are closely connected, amongst other things, the sense of sin, respect for morals in marriage, perception of the necessity to belong to the Church, of the necessity of the “works” (masses for the departed, indulgences), baptism of small children. All this which would represent a rehabilitation of the pastoral, that is in the authentic sense of the word, one that is Catholic.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Guillaume Cuchet, Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien. Anatomie dun effondrement, Seuil, 2018, p. 266.

[2] Fayard, 1973.

[3] Paris, Cerf, 1985.

[4] Épilogue, Culture et Vérité, 1997. Also see: Espérer pour tous, Desclée de Brouwer, 1987 ; LEnfer en question, Desclée de Brouwer, 1988.

[5] See Laurent Jestin, « Foi douteuse, espérance trop sûre d’elle-même. La dérive des funérailles chrétiennes », Catholica, Autumn 2007.

[6] The magisterium like an eiderdown fluff – Res Novae – Perspectives romaines.

[7] International Theological Commission, La speranza della salvezza per i bambini che muoiono senza battesimo, La Civiltà Cattolica, 4 May 2007.

[8] Report of Un chemin dhistoire. Chrétienté et christianisation (Fayard, 1981), in Revue historique, April-June 1983, pp. 497-498.