Hell, Heaven, and Progressive Catholics

With another presidential election looming, it won’t be long before many self-described progressive Catholics start issuing countless statements about numerous policy issues. Though many such Catholics sit rather loosely with Catholic teaching on questions like life and marriage, their “relaxed” position on such issues is belied by their stridency on, for instance, economic matters. Woe betide he who suggests welfare cuts can sometimes be a legitimate policy option, for thou art anathema.

This absolutizing of what the Church teaches on what are usually prudential-judgment issues is often traced to the political theologies that emerged in 1960s West Germany, before (to everyone’s detriment) being exported to Latin America.

But as Pope Benedict XVI notes in part two of his Jesus of Nazareth, these theologies’ influence has faded in the Catholic world. Nevertheless, various progressive Catholics continue to press what is often a hyper-politicized understanding of the gospel. That suggests the roots of the problem may lie elsewhere.

Perhaps it has something to do with the eternal quest for “relevance” that’s often fuelled by living in hothouses like Washington, D.C. In some cases, it might be ambitions of a political appointment. While such factors shouldn’t be discounted, deeper theological influences may be at work. Though it’s impolitic to say so, one such pressure may be the effective denial of the reality of hell that has become part of much contemporary Christian life.

Hell is not a comfortable subject. The idea that we can, by virtue of one or more of our free choices, potentially separate ourselves eternally from God’s love is frightening.

But the reality of hell and that it will be populated by those who fail to choose to repent of such choices (we don’t know the identity or number of such people, and pray and hope we won’t  be among them) is firmly attested to by Scripture and Tradition. St. Augustine’s City of God devotes several chapters to affirming these truths. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers specifically to those who die in a state of mortal sin enduring “eternal separation from God.”

Moreover, from the standpoint of reason, hell is a logical side effect of God’s willingness to let us choose whether or not to live in His Truth.

God doesn’t will that anyone goes to hell. Hell is, as the philosopher John Finnis writes, “a self-made judgment, the inherent outcome of a sin by which one refuses to remain and grow in friendship with God.”

As a reality, however, hell has disappeared from some Christians’ horizons. This partly owes something to those biblical scholars who have reduced the gospels to “symbols” and “stories,” the “real” meaning of which — so they tell us — actually contradicts what the Church has always understood them to mean.

In this self-referential world, hell is simply “threat discourse” (as Karl Rahner called it) and God a cosmic bluffer — which would, Finnis observes, imply Jesus Christ is a liar.


Another, more mundane reason for hell’s disappearance is that we don’t really want to be accountable for our sins. Hence we rationalize them away through consequentialist illusions (a choice to kill an innocent life might be justified on the basis of an impossible calculation of known and unknown consequences), or delude ourselves that our fundamental option for Christ somehow obviates those post-conversion sins that render our faith, as St. James says, “dead.”

Among the many problems flowing from this is that once hell disappears as a real possibility, then heaven doesn’t mean so much anymore — since everyone, whatever they choose, is presumably going there.

The desire for heaven, however, can’t be eradicated from human existence. As beings made for an eternal destiny, it’s hardwired into us. Hence, it ends up getting transmuted into what Benedict calls “ideologies of progress.”

In Spe Salvi (perhaps his best encyclical thus far), Pope Benedict illustrates how the disappearance of the hope of heaven meant people started putting their faith in science to create a totally new world: “a kingdom of man” rather than the kingdom of heaven. This, Benedict argues, explains much of the modern world’s dysfunctionality.

When it comes to Catholics, hell’s disappearance and the ensuing trivialization of the hope of heaven has resulted in some effectively redefining their faith so that it becomes almost exclusively focused on various political agendas with utopian flavors (“end poverty forever”). It’s especially characteristic of those religious orders whose numbers have collapsed over the past 40 years.

Does this mean all progressive Catholics quietly deny hell? Not at all. But it’s certainly worth asking some of them whether their language and actions reflect a de facto embrace of such reasoning — one that subsequently reduces Christ to a rather secular-minded 20th-century progressivist and the Catholic Faith to mere activism.


Avoiding such errors, however, doesn’t mean Catholics should withdraw into an apolitical ghetto. Part of the Christian way involves doing good and avoiding evil, including through politics — but without imagining human salvation can be realized there.

More generally, most Catholics aren’t called to a life of activism (left or right). As part of God’s design, we all have different vocations, the faithful fulfilling of which mysteriously helps, as Vatican II taught, “to prepare the material [materiam] of the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, eternal life does in fact somehow begin now. Our good works today — what Vatican II called “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise [industriae],” most notably “human dignity [humanae dignitatis], brotherhood [communionis fraternae] and freedom [libertatis]” — will be taken up, cleansed of sin, and perfected when Christ returns.

None of this makes sense, however, without accepting Catholic teaching about the hope of heaven and hence the alternative of effectively choosing hell. Herein lies the gospel’s ultimate relevance. Embracing it is the path to true freedom, not to mention eternal life.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

  • Carl

    Dr Greg said, “But as Pope Benedict XVI notes in part two of his Jesus of Nazareth, these theologies’ influence has faded in the Catholic world. Nevertheless, various progressive Catholics continue to press what is often a hyper-politicized understanding of the gospel. That suggests the roots of the problem may lie elsewhere.”
    Benedict then says “On the contrary, it is a favorite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be. It serves, not humanity, but inhumanity…what Jesus actually brought to mankind, we argued in Part One of this book that he brought God to the nations (p. 44)…this fundamental purpose is what lies behind the cleansing of the Temple: to remove whatever obstacles there may be to common recognition and worship of God—and thereby to open up a space for common worship.”
    Benedict also says “In contrast to the cattle-trading and money-changing, Jesus brings his healing goodness. This is the true cleansing of the Temple. Jesus does not come as a destroyer. He does not come bearing the sword of the revolutionary. He comes with the gift of healing. He reveals God as the one who loves and his power as the power of love.”
    And I add that politics is loveless institution, many times cruel, heartless, and murderous. Politics is only made up of things in this present time and temporary world.

  • K Winterer

    We had a Jesuit for the last two Sunday’s while our pastor
    was unavailable. He, the Jebbie, started each Mass by saying that ‘God doesn’t keep track of our sins.’ and in one part of his sermon, he claimed that each breath we take cleanses us of our sins, making us totally innocent.” This seems to be typical of progressive ‘liberal’ thought but why is it called Catholic?

  • Bob

    “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

    At the end of my life, He who can count every hair on my head, will hold me accountable for every second of my life.
    I won’t be standing in front of Christ with a lawyer, friend, to try and justify my earthly actions. I’ll be standing alone. Adam in the Garden tried to point a finger at Eve saying it was her fault, therefore relieving him of any accountabilty. Nice try, Adam……..

    Did I spend my time here on planet earth pursuiting the vainglory things of man……..or the will of God?

    Mea culpa……mea culpa…….mea maxima culpa……..

  • I’ve always liked how C. S. Lewis explained it: Heaven is for those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” Hell is for those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

    Quite simply, if one believes in free will, one must believe in Hell.

    • Carl

      Hell has been described as spending eternity with grotesque proportions of our sins.

      If this is true then some spend eternity in the “unquenchable fire” denying God’s will and unceasingly arguing secular politics.

  • Thomas C. coleman, Jr.

    Here I go again. The curent sate of affairs was predicted Bella Dodd, a former Communist who returend to the Chruch and in 1947 predicted that in 25 years no one would recognize the Catholic Churc due to the massive infiltrations of seminaries by young Communists. Of course, this did not take place only in the USA but in every land where Christians. The purpose of the infiltration was to create a parralel, counterfeit church that would claim that the pruose of the chruch was social justice rather than Salvation and that therefore Christians could in good conscience support Marxists. We cannot fight this enemy if we are afraid to name it. We are truly guilty of cowardice in the face of the enemy if we refuse to name it out of fear of being alughed at or called McCarthyists. This phenomenon itslef is one the the Kremlin’s greatest achievement. Like K Winterer aboe (She might agree with me on this.) I have heard many priests take to the pulpit and and dpew outright heresies that by no consequence play right into hands of Satan. The situation is quite dire, and pretending otherwise out of of ridicule rom so-caleed progressives does nothing to help. It is our children and gradnchildren who are not hearing about Heavn and Hell, and in fact many, many of the latter are not even being baptized. Our Lady of Fatima, Pray for us!

  • Jared

    Does anyone know the title of the Finnis article mentioned by Gregg? Thanks!

    • Paul Brady

      The piece by Finnis cited in the article is available as essay 24 in volume 5 of his recently published collected essays. See here http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199580095.do
      It is a fantastic collection of articles which I would recommend to all thinking Catholics.
      Best wishes,

  • Tom

    This is a great article and while we must do all we can to attain Heaven (and avoid Hell) we must never forget the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy. In the end, we rely on his grace, though we must say “yes” to it.

  • Mena

    God’s “great mercy” is only for those who want it and are willing to reject sin and evil in favor of charity and justice to have it. (And to confess/recant failures along the way.)

    Everyone else is rightly damned and lost forever, as is only right. Even Jesuit priests.

  • Tom


    How can you say “every one else is rightly damned and lost forever”. Only God knows what’s in a person’s heart.

    “There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)

    God’s mercy is such that anyone that accepts it will be saved, even at the end of his or her life. We should be careful about assuming who may or may not be in a position to accept it. Rather, we should pray for those who are on the wrong track and whose souls appear to be in danger.

  • Mena

    Tom, re-read what I wrote. I don’t think we have any disagreement.

    Those who *do not* seek God’s mercy and *are not willing* to reject sin and evil in favor of charity and justice are damned and lost forever — rightly so.

  • mrd

    While God is infinitely merciful, he is also infinitely just. I just wonder if the central problem of our time is not a lack of focus on God’s mercy, but on the fact that most people do not think they need it. It is difficult to make this statement without sounding self rightous, but I think it is true nonetheless.

    One of the things that I notice as I raise my children and proceed through the religious ed programs for confession, first eucharist, confirmation, high school religion classes etc is the the complete incoherence of the faith as its currently presented when the possibility of eternal loss is left out.

    I have to quote my son, he is 16 and came upon this statement , perhaps something he read, but it suprised me and I quote it here ” Most people think the default position is we go to heaven, but this is not right at all, the default is that we go to hell, the human race is fallen, and is prone to mortal sin, which we need grace to avoid” So the evangelical Christians have this right . Indeed they do. My son’s little league team had the good fortune to be coached by a former MLB player. Himslef an Evangelical Christian, and the end of the season he gave each of the kids a baseball card, not embellished with his stats on the back, but rather the biblical verse John 3:16 and the evangelical explanation of this verse. ( when you think about it, leaving aside the faith versus works issues, is really the same as ours used to be, ) We are sinners and desperately needed a savior or we would be eternally lost. We have lost this concept.

    When I was a boy, in the mid and late 60s I grew up in a small town, and the winds of change wrought by Vatican II were slow to come. I recall a time when their were confessions before mass and for hours on Saturday. It was not uncommon to go every week. Everyone knew that we sinned frequently, and to be able to recieve on Sunday you needed to be in the state of grace. Catholics no longer talk like this. In fact even politicians who aid and abet legal abortion ( an unspeakable crime according to Vatican II) can feel free to recieve.

    In this climate it seems to be we have removed the concept of sin from our minds. IF that is the case Christianity is incoherent nonsense, Why did Jesus come? What did the “savior” “save” us from.

    Some on the traditional Catholic camp at times sound as if they are “glad” or enjoy the prospect of someone going to hell. I find it hard to juxtapose the words “damned and rightly so” But I don’t think this is really their point . I think what is the point is Catholicism as it is currently being presented post Vatican II, is at some fundamental level incoherent and thus not compelling because the concept, that any of us could be damned, with all the horror that that brings to mind, has been watered down. Because it is watered down the gift of God’s grace is not really felt, The purpose of the redemption is obscured, and the desperate critical need to respond to that grace with all the effort we can, because nothing else really matters, is all….. gone.

    As the world post Vatican II slides into the abyss it is clear that the only hope for civilization is the only hope there has ever been, the Church. Who rebuilt the world after the fall of Rome? But now the Church at least in its human institutional form is supine. It is supine because it has forgotten its story and its mission which centers really around human sinfulness. This is really the problem of our time, and in fact the real legacy of the Changes perhaps not intended by Vatican II, but certainly precipitated by it. ( And the world is sliding into an abyss, lets just count the ways.. gay marriage, destroy them and have access to their interesting stem cells, endless war in the middle east, Jihadist Islam perscuting and murdering Christians, and plotting the mass murder of the Jewish people in Israel, All western nations with a politics so corrupt they are plunging into unimaginable and unsustainable levels of debt, need I go on…)

    I do not know the answer to all of this, but I know for sure that is the nature of the problem, and I do not think right now the problem is that people doubt the “mercy of God” Only sinners need mercy, and we don’t have any of these anymore.

  • mrd

    Sorry just to avoid any confusion the phrase “destroy them and have access to their interesting stem cellse above ” refers to the fact we make human embryos in the lab and was accidentally edited out.

  • Mena

    MRD, nice post. I agree. Note that when I said “damned and rightly so,” I was simply saying that God’s punishments for human crimes, torts, and sins are justly deserved. They are just. Perhaps saying “…and justly so” would have sounded more precise.

    God is big on justice. So are we, really, if one considers how we feel if we have been robbed, raped, lied to, or assaulted. Severe injury requires severe reparations/restitution on the part of the perpetrator. And in those cases when criminals have no remorse, or even take pleasure in their crimes, we intuitively know they are especially worthy of whatever punishment society assigns. So it is with God.

    Salvation is precisely about calling humans to recant their evils and amend their ways, replacing wrongs with rights and selfishness with charity. This is the whole of Christ’s mission. God seeks for men to convert from evil to good with ever-increasing nobility and justice in all their dealings. And when people do, the result is nothing less than the restoration of paradise, the betterment of society, and the elevation of humankind.

  • Tom

    Mena and mrd,

    I think we basically agree. Those who commit grave sins are in danger of being damned (and will be outside of some form of reconciliation with God); God’s judgment is just (of course); There are many who commit grave sins within the Church and who lead others astray; many in the Church have lost a sense of sin and its seriousness and presumptuously assume almost everyone will just go to heaven; a failure to recognize sin and possible damnation is a major obstacle to recognizing the need for mercy and seeking it.

    My problem with Mena’s initial comment is that it provides a kind of formula describing who qualifies for God’s mercy (in a scolding tone – or so it seemed to me). The formula may be technically correct but many in a state of sin can only come back one step at a time (by God’s grace). Only God knows what is in a person’s heart. We can make judgments about how bad a teaching is but we are not allowed to judge the teacher or those who accept it. We need to defend the truth but also show the way back from serious error. I am *not* saying we always need to be “nice” about it – sometimes the truth hurts, and evil needs to be strongly resisted. However, we should not be needlessly strident or act out of human anger. We need to make sure not to push further away someone who genuinely wants to repent (or may in the future).

    I thought it important to emphasize God’s mercy because those who are in the deepest sin need it the most. And yes, at some point they need to recognize their need.

  • Don L

    We in CT have had an activist priest sent forth for several decade now to claim the flocks (for Satan,) apparently with the bishop’s approval. Stating that the old hierarchy is dead, he uses the radical feminist view to replace it and announces with assurance,while his soft guitar playing accompanyist strums – that “we’re all going to heaven.”

    The uncatechized masses love him and unfortunately, without divine interference, many will follow him to Hades as he tickles their ears. A disciple of the dissident theologians, no one seems to mind his shennanigans. I’m certain that it was his type of anti-Roman priest that flocked to Notre Dame to help scandalize the Church by honoring the first pro-infanticide president in history.
    Little has changed since Judas.

  • Don L

    “However, we should not be needlessly strident or act out of human anger. We need to make sure not to push further away someone who genuinely wants to repent (or may in the future.”

    True but then Paul tells us to discern and admonish – not to remain silent. Read Steven’s admonishment that caused his being stoned to death – it wasn’t gentle, nor inoffensive. Did you think that Christ came to bring peace…etc. One of the best lines Satan ever used was, “You can’t judge me!” causing pride to force us to back off from the truth.

    Yes, we must be sensitive -but never at the expense of the truth – love for our neighbor’s soul, requires risk of offending sometimes. That is part of carrying the cross. Why else was Paul stoned and flogged routinely?

  • MRD

    Hmm… I have been hearing things like “However, we should not be needlessly strident or act out of human anger. We need to make sure not to push further away someone who genuinely wants to repent (or may in the future). ” TO some extent its true enough, but again I think that it misses the problem of the age. There may have been a time when this was the key problem. This time is not know. First of all it is not entirely consistent with the approach of Christ himself.. In Matthew Ch 23 we have him appearing by today’ s standards anyway.. well strident.. So in Mt 23:15 he says.. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. I don’t know, wonder if some of the Pharisees were “pushed away”

    To the struggling sinner who is trying to correct a habit of chronic sin, the compassionate gentle approach makes sense. In terms of dealing with the Crisis facing us, it will not and has not worked. We have widespread apostasy.

    I think we need to take the approach of Flannery O’Connor “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

    I think we have a crisis of unprecedented proportions in this way. On a central and fundamental level the Church is filled with people who deny not in words but in praxis the central issue of the faith. The reality of personal sin, and the need for a redeemer. To some extent this is almost the unforgivable sin committed against the Holy Spirit.

    There are multiple lines of evidence to support this, but probably the most obvious is the way the Church hierarchy treats pro-abortion politicians. What to make of a situation where Politicians can support what even Vatican II labeled and unspeakable crime and John Paul II labeled murder.. and yet the politicians are not basically excommunicated? Clearly the hierarchy does not really believe abortion is an ” unspeakable crime” they certainly do not act like they do. I could site other examples on other topics, but this would be tedious. As they used to say in school “This is left to the reader as an exercise.” I will give you a clue however google the name Pfleger and then answer the question what kind of thought process is Cardinal George using so that this man remains a Priest in good standing and was offered the presidency of a Catholic school.

    Given that we have a crisis of this level. I think we need to take O’Connor’s advice, the people around us are near blind, we need large and startling figures. We need not be afraid to scare anyone off.

  • Tom

    Don L and MRD,

    You are leaving out part of what I said, which includes:

    “I am *not* saying we always need to be “nice” about it – sometimes the truth hurts, and evil needs to be strongly resisted.”

    Yes, the perpetrators of serious heterodoxy and sin (like abortion) need to be seriously opposed.

    However, there are many who hold heterodox views because they have been badly taught and misled. They often need the more gentle approach, and a lot of prayer. The “gentle” approach includes speaking the truth clearly and without compromise.

    Consider Saint Francis de Sales and Fulton Sheen who basically used this approach. They were immensely successful.

    I’d be interested in knowing about cases where Flannery O’Connor’s advice worked.

  • Ross Douthat gives some additional reasons for the increasing disbelief in hell:


    1) Americans live in a more pluralistic culture
    2) Americans are more comfortable than ever, which makes injustices all the more appalling and seemingly unfair.

    His argument in favor of hell is pretty interesting. If universal salvation is true, then it deprives life of drama i.e. our choices have no real meaning if it doesn’t matter at the end. Its like a choose your own adventure story where the end is the same no matter what.

    Moreover, he argues that we should change the ? from “Is Gandhi in heaven?” to “Is Tony Soprano in hell?” Are we really saying there no acts that are worth condemning absolutely?

  • Paul

    Great to see a piece on this given all the Rob Bell controversy which spilled over into the public forum now: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/july-8-2011/heaven-and-hell/9108/