My mother died at age 27. She left a grieving husband and three little children: myself, age six, and my younger sister and brother, ages four and two, respectively. I remember my mother well, her death from pneumonia the day after Christmas 1934, and her funeral, the first I ever attended. I remember too my father telling me, a few days after we had buried her: “We must still pray for Mummy. She is with God. He is looking after her, and our prayers can help her.” That made sense to me when I was only six. It makes sense to me still. I never celebrate Mass without praying for my dear mother by name—and now for many other loved ones who have gone home to God in the seven decades since her death.
But what of those who die seemingly in mortal sin, apart from God’s grace? What are we to think of them? The question is a serious one, especially when it involves a loved one. Let me address it as best I can.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
“For a sin to be mortal,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “three conditions together must be met. ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’” (1857). It is important to attend to all three of those conditions. Even if we assume that the person’s sins were grave in themselves, can we be sure that the other two conditions were met? Substance abuse, for example, can diminish freedom. And the Catechism adds: “The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders” (1860). We can never judge the extent to which such mitigating factors are present in another person. Only God can look into the human heart.
When people ask me whether a particular sin is mortal, I tell them: “Sinning mortally means deliberately and freely turning your back on God in a grave matter. It means a free and deliberate decision to shut out of your life all goodness, all light, all love. Is that what you’ve done?”
Whether we realize it or not, all of us are looking, all our lives long, for love, light, and goodness. Sin involves seeking these things in the wrong place. The Bible calls this idolatry: calling on a false god who can never answer our prayers. The biblical writers repeatedly express their scorn for those who pray to such false gods. Psalm 115 says of them:
Their idols are silver and gold, the handiwork of men.
They have mouths but speak not; they have eyes but see not;
They have ears but hear not; they have noses but smell not;
They have hands but feel not; they have feet but walk not;
They utter no sound from their throat.
Their makers shall be like them, everyone that trusts in them.
More striking still is the devastating ridicule of those who call on false gods that we find in the account of the duel between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of the false god Baal, atop Mount Carmel. The rules of the contest were simple. “You shall call on your gods,” Elijah says, “and I will call on the Lord. The God who answers with fire is God” (1 Kgs 18:24). The Baal worshippers open the contest:
They called on Baal from morning to noon, saying, “Answer us, Baal!” But there was no sound, and no one answering. And they hopped around the altar they had prepared. When it was noon, Elijah taunted them: “Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” They called louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until blood gushed over them. Noon passed and they remained in a prophetic state until the time for offering sacrifice. But there was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening.
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of our greatest theologians, identifies four false gods: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Their worshippers are not hard to find. The hard-driving entrepreneur intent on amassing wealth burns himself out in the process and drops dead of a heart attack in his 50s. People who seek power over others become bullies (if they’re men) or manipulators (if they’re women). People who covet honor and glory above all else end by becoming marionettes in the hands of those who are able to promote them to ever-higher positions. Sadly, we have a few of those in the priesthood.
Those who worship false gods are not bad people. They are good people. Even what they are seeking is good; for what they are really looking for, though they do not realize it, is God. But they are looking for Him in the wrong place. The god whom they invoke can never answer their prayers.
I came across a vivid example of idolatry way back in 1963, when I was teaching at a boys’ school in Germany. The oldest students were the age of American college undergraduates. Some of them were in a seminar for students whose English was good enough for me to conduct the whole class in our language. One of the books we read was Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize–winning story, The Old Man and the Sea. It tells about a Cuban fisherman who puts to sea in an open boat and lands the biggest fish of his life. Unable to bring it aboard, he lashes it alongside his small craft. From the moment he does so, he fears that in the shark-infested sea his huge catch will be attacked by predators. When he finally gets back to port, little is left of his prize but a skeleton. The story is characterized throughout by deep pessimism.
I told the students that the author had lived for thrills: the excitement of battle in the Spanish Civil War, four marriages and goodness knows how many affairs, big-game hunting in Africa. Like the millionaire whose wealth is never quite enough, the person who lives for thrills and pleasure is never fully satisfied. This could certainly account for the pessimism in Hemingway’s writing. Was it so surprising, I asked the students, that he ended by blowing his brains out at the age of 61? I asked them to contrast Hemingway’s tragic end with the then-recent death of a man who had impressed the whole world with his happiness and joy: Pope John XXIII. Both men spent their lives seeking happiness. Only good Pope John found it, however, because he alone sought happiness from the only One who can give it.
Are the worshippers of false gods condemned necessarily to hell? At bottom, this is the question.
The Catechism says that if mortal sin “is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God” (1861). That however is important. It forbids us to say with confidence that any given individual is in hell.
Sadly, we don’t hear much about hell today. The English church historian Eamon Duffy writes in Faith of Our Fathers (2002):
We believe in hell, because we can imagine ourselves choosing it. We cannot know the secrets of other people’s souls, but we know enough of our own to recognize something within us which shies away from God, something which wants to close our hearts to others. There is no inevitability about our response to God or to other people: hate and fear, as well as love and trust, are close to hand. Hell, in that sense, is a perpetual calling within us, from which only the loving mercy of God holds us back. We can trust in that mercy, but to trust in God’s mercy is not the same as taking it for granted. We may hope for salvation for all humankind, even for ourselves: but hell remains a terrible possibility, the dark side of our freedom. But the last word in all this belongs not with our freedom, but with God’s grace.
But how can a loving and merciful God condemn anyone to everlasting punishment in hell? The truth is God never condemns anyone to hell. The Catechism says that hell is self-chosen. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
But what is hell exactly? Hell is when everyone else has been invited to the party, and you are not there—not because you weren’t invited, for you were invited time and again, but because you turned down every invitation. Hell is being alone with yourself, forever: without light, without love, without generosity, without goodness. Those who make a permanent and consistent choice to be without these things—who deliberately and finally shut out light, love, generosity, and goodness from their lives—will find one day that God respects their choice. The judgment that awaits each of us at life’s end is not the adding up of the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. Rather, in judgment, God ratifies the judgment we have pronounced by the choices we make during our time here on earth.
If you have not already done so, I urge you to see the British film The Queen, a movie I found to be elegantly written and beautifully photographed, both gripping and moving by turns. It portrays the contest of wills between a new British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, over her reaction to the tragic death of Princess Diana, contrasting the silence of the queen, locked away in her remote estate in Scotland, with the grief of the crowds in London. It also brings to mind a good example of what I am speaking about here.
Diana lived in the fast lane, and that was where she died. When everything has been said that must be said about how badly her husband treated her, much of Diana’s life remained anything but admirable. Repeatedly unfaithful in her marriage (like her husband), she engaged in a mad pursuit of excitement and pleasure. There was scant evidence that she had any religious faith. Within weeks of her death she consulted a spiritualist. Yet she reached out repeatedly in loving deeds and words to people who were suffering: AIDS victims, the homeless, victims of land mines. For that, people loved her.
I remember thinking at the time of Diana’s death that she was like the woman in Luke’s Gospel, “known in the town to be a sinner,” who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil. When Jesus’ critics reproached Him for accepting this extravagant gesture from someone steeped in sin, He replied: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much” (Lk 7:47). May we not hope the same for others?
As a 20-year-old seminarian, I heard an elderly priest, who had spent his whole life in parishes, say in a retreat address: “Brothers, as priests you will be shepherds to everyone in the parish where you’re assigned. Some of them will come to church at Christmas and Easter only, others never. Don’t think that you have failed with such people. People are at very different stages on the spiritual journey. Some will never get farther than turning in some way to God just before they die. If your ministry helps someone to do only that, you have not failed. You have succeeded.” That was almost 60 years ago. I’ve never forgotten it.
Our wonderful Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, says something similar. A few years before his election to the papacy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) told the German journalist Peter Seewald:
I have nothing against it if people who all year long never visit a church go there at least on Christmas Night or New Year’s Eve or on special occasions, because this is another way of belonging to the blessing of the sacred, to the light. There have to be various forms of participation and association; the Church has to be inwardly open (God and the World).
In October 2006, Benedict concluded a series of talks about the twelve apostles by speaking about Judas Iscariot. We cannot know why Judas betrayed the Lord who had admitted Judas to His inner circle of friends, the pope said. He contrasted Judas with Peter, who also betrayed Jesus. After his fall, Peter repented and found forgiveness and grace. Judas also repented, but his repentance degenerated into despair and became self-destruction. It is an invitation for us always to remember what St. Benedict says at the end of chapter five of his Rule: “Never despair of God’s mercy.”
Think often of those words. It is God’s mercy alone that allows us to hope for anyone’s salvation, our own included. All of us have worshipped at the shrine of some false god, at one time or another—some of us for years. We priests are no exception. It has taken me a lifetime to learn that the deepest desires of the heart can be satisfied by God alone—and I am nearing the end of my eighth decade. “Though we are sinners,” we pray in the first Eucharistic Prayer, “we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness.” That is a prayer of universal application.
Pray for those who have left this life. Pray and remember the words of the aged bishop to whom St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, poured out her grief over the seemingly wasted life of her brilliant son, worshipping at the shrine of more than one false god: “The son of so many tears,” the old man assured Monica, “cannot perish.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2007 edition of Crisis