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How did we forget about hell?

El Greco depicts hell as an animal’s mouth (c 1570s)

In the late 1990s I wrote a history of the Knights Templar and, after a year or two immersed in the Crusades, was struck by how real was the fear of hell among Catholics at the time, and by what extreme measures they were prepared to take to save their souls. So central to their faith was this fear of damnation that present-day post-Vatican II Catholicism seemed in this respect like a different religion.

Six years later, I expressed my perplexity on the subject in an essay published together with other collected writings by Darton, Longman and Todd as Hell and Other Destinations. I asked how it was that the clear teaching of the Church (and of the monks at Ampleforth where I went to school) that those who die in a state of mortal sin would be damned, that many were called but few chosen, that the hard and narrow path leads to salvation and the broad and easy road to damnation, all now seemed to have been replaced by an assumption that salvation is a universal entitlement with hell either empty or reserved for world-historical monsters like Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and, possibly, General Pinochet and Mrs Thatcher.

My essay was an amateur effort and the question I put received no answer. That is, until now. Dr Ralph Martin is an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, director of graduate theology programmes in the new evangelisation and a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. He is, in other words, a man at the cutting edge of the current drive to convert non-Catholics to the Catholic Faith. In this endeavour, however, he has clearly faced a problem. What is Catholicism’s unique selling point, other than the conviction of Catholics that what they believe happens to be true? What makes up for its inconveniences such as its strictures on sex and the obloquy Catholics must endure for their perceived misogyny, homophobia, indifference to Aids in Africa and so on if, in the long run, as we now seem to believe, everyone will end up in heaven?

Dr Martin’s book is called Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and its Implications for the New Evangelisation. Theological cognoscenti will recognise the reference to Dare we Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar, a book in which the Swiss theologian claims not just that we dare hope that no one is in hell but that we should hope that no one is in hell and, in fact, can assume that no one is in hell.

Dr Martin treads carefully with von Balthasar, said to be the favourite theologian of Blessed John Paul II, but his critique of his writing on the subject is devastating. In his book Balthasar “departs from the content of revelation and the mainstream theological tradition of the Church in a way that undermines the call to holiness and evangelisation and is pastorally damaging”. Martin is equally critical of the teaching of Karl Rahner, whose heavy tomes of theology, impenetrable to the lay Catholic, have done much to change our beliefs on the question of salvation. It is Rahner’s concept of the “anonymous Christian” that put the final nail in the coffin of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation.

Both Rahner and Balthasar make much of paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes, which teaches that members of other religions, and even atheists, may be saved; but here, says Martin, there is some cherry-picking and sleight of hand. “Rahner’s completely optimistic description of the conciliar teaching on the salvation of non-Christians is only possible when the complete text is ignored…” With great delicacy and repeated protestation of respect Martin shows how both Rahner and von Balthasar have allowed their wishful thinking to distort, even pervert, the teaching of the gospels and the Church.

Paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium states that non-believers who “seek God with a sincere heart” and “do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience” will be saved. So far so good. But, as Martin points out (with the aid of other commentators), both theologians wilfully ignore what follows: “But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie…” Note the “very often”. Note, too, Lumen Gentium’s reference at this point to St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans, in which he uses “unnatural intercourse” as an instance of where such vain reasoning can lead: “men doing shameless things with men and getting an appropriate reward for their perversion”.

Dr Martin is a specialist on evangelisation and at first sight his book is a merely a scholarly contribution to his area of expertise. But, of course, it is much more than that. Evangelising is at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Presenting the Catholic faith as “an optional enrichment opportunity”, instead of “a precious and urgent opportunity to find salvation and escape damnation”, is to distort both the gospels and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

A riddle remains. Why, if Martin’s critique is correct, has the teaching on salvation of Rahner and Balthasar not been condemned by the Church? Cardinal Avery Dulles described Balthasar’s position as “adventurous” and the then Cardinal Ratzinger talked of Rahner’s “astonishing optimism”: he also warned Catholics against reading Scripture “contrary to its own intentions”. But these are mild criticisms if the two theologians have got things so wrong. Dr Martin’s book is now endorsed by four cardinals and two archbishops but, given that the subject is of such paramount importance, should there not be a clear statement by Pope Benedict or Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about what we must do, or not do, to be saved?

Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer