Pope Francis and universalism

DOES A TENDENCY TOWARD UNIVERSALISM ACCOUNT FOR AMORIS LAETITIA?

“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1035, promulgated by Saint Pope John Paul II)

This note on the impact of “universal salvation” on the modern church begins with a somewhat frightening quote from a great spiritual writer of the nineteenth century, F.W. Faber, who seemed to have a premonition that the loss of belief in hell was going to infiltrate the Church. He says:

“The devil’s worst and most fatal preparation for the coming of Antichrist is the weakening of men’s belief in eternal punishment. Were they the last words I  might ever say to you, nothing should I wish to say to you with more emphasis than this, that next to the thought of the Precious Blood there is no thought in all your faith more precious or more needful for you than the thought of Eternal Punishment.” 

Apokatastasis is the heresy that claims that – in the end –  all men are saved. It is a denial of hell or in the eternity of hell. It’s most famous disciple was Origen. In more recent times the theology of universal salvation (universalism) has made its way back into the Church through the apokatastasis-leaning writings of the Protestant, Karl Barth, and the Catholic, Hans Urs von Balthasar, although these men speak more to the hope or probability of universal salvation than to its dogmatic certainty (still von Balthasar popularized the notion that in view of God’s infinite love it is unlikely anyone is damned forever, even if the possibility cannot be ruled out).

“The history of the doctrine of universal salvation is a remarkable one. Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of the eternal torment of hell….Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment….Universal salvation is now so widely accepted… that many theologians assume it virtually without argument” (Richard Bauckham as quoted in Will Many Be Saved, p. 130). Although Mr. Bauckham’s statement may be overly broad it nevertheless gives us some perspective on the rapid disenfranchisement of the church from the doctrine of hell (as in not preaching about hell, or popularizing the notion that only horrible characters go there, or in simply not preaching about sin).

I remember reading Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, The Joy of the Gospel, and thinking to myself, “Wow!, he mentions hardly a word about the salvation of souls in a lengthy document dedicated to the preaching of the Gospel!” And then came the Encyclical Letter on the environment, Laudato Si, and the basic focus in that document was the salvation of  planet earth from threats such as global warming.

The purpose of this note is to question whether the infiltration of the heresy of universalism – or some modified version of it formulated to pass theological muster –  has now made its way even into the highest levels of the Church (at least in a finely nuanced manner)? My concern is that the loss of belief in eternal damnation necessarily results in a relaxation of doctrine, most especially in the area of morality. And fundamentally what is Amoris Laetitia but a relaxation or weakening of Catholic morality pertaining to intrinsically evil acts?

Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, once said: “The lack of the fear of God is the beginning of folly. When the fear of God…no longer holds sway, people lose their standard, their criterion…there emerges an idolatry…and the door is wide open for every kind of folly.” And what is most directly responsible for the loss of the fear of God among Christians than the loss of belief in eternal punishment.

As Father Dwight Longenecker said just a few years ago: “The effects of universalism on the church are catastrophic. It’s not real hard to understand. People aren’t dumb. If everyone is going to be saved, then why bother to go to church? If everyone is going to be saved there is no such thing as mortal sin. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need for evangelism. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need to feed the hungry, become a priest, build the church and become a saint.”

In Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia we are confronted by what seems to be a stunning manifestation of universalism in a Papal exhortation (at no. 297), which reads:

297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous”mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! (emphasis added)

Regarding no. 297, renowned theologian “Josef Seifert warns that it’s ‘nearly unavoidable’ to deduce [from it] a denial of Hell—a fear echoed by others. Anna Silvas notes Amoris Laetitia’s ‘missing’ lexicon of eternity: ‘There are no immortal souls in need of eternal salvation to be found in the document!’ ” (from “Amoris Laetitia and the Four Last Things,” available online).

Further, and of great significance, the acknowledged “ghostwriter” of Amoris Laetitia, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, apparently leans towards universalism as seen from a 1995 article where he stated:  “I rely firmly upon the truth that all are saved.” 

Even if the phrase “no one can be condemned forever” refers primarily to earthly life in relationship to the Church, the phrase is equally troubling and problematic – this is so because a person who refuses the grace of the Holy Spirit to repent of mortal sin is in a state of condemnation and cannot be granted a free pass to stay in his sinful condition. In any event, even this alternative explanation, not only being contrary to the Church’s teaching regarding mortal sin, also involves a tacit denial of the eternity of hell (or affirms the new theology that no one actually goes there). As Pope John Paul II said in Dominum et Vivificatem, “If man rejects the ‘convincing concerning sin’ which comes from the Holy Spirit,” he is in essence rejecting the “redemptive power of Christ’s blood” (no. 46).

Let me add here that the great Catholic moral theologian, Germain Grisez, sent a letter to Pope Francis, co-signed by John Finnis, outlining significant difficulties regarding the manner in which Amoris Laetitia could be interpreted. Pages 22 through 30 of that letter of 31 pages pertain to the very liberal interpretation of hell that could be deduced from Amoris Laetitia. See “The Misuse of Amoris Laetitia to Support Errors Against the Catholic Faith” (available online).

So we are confronted by a conundrum: what motivated Pope Francis to tinker with Catholic moral theology in such an unprecedented manner? After all, Pope John Paul II had warned that the types of arguments made in Amoris Laetitia, wherein circumstantial exceptions are made possible for intrinsically evil acts (see AL 301-303), would constitute “a very serious error” (VS 103). Saint John Paul II specifically said:

“The negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever.” (Veritatis Splendor 67)

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception.” (VS 52)

With such strong and clear statements regarding the integrity of Catholic morality in VERITATIS SPLENDOR, what could have so easily encouraged Pope Francis to move in the opposite direction, causing great confusion in the Church, and casting a shadow over the moral teachings of the Church?

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.

References: Will Many Be Saved?  by Ralph Martin (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). This book was written before Pope Francis’ Papacy. Martin argues that Hans Urs von Balthasar believed in and did, in fact, teach universalism, while formulating it as a hope and not a doctrine (see p. 135). The quote from Father Faber is from Notes on Doctrinal and Spiritual Subjects, p.23).

Note: It is possible to believe in hell, or speak of hell, but to further believe that it is not eternal and will ultimately be empty (this type of belief is a form of universalism).

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