Why don’t we talk about hell any more, asks the Pope

Fire and brimstone is part of the pontiff’s push for a back-to-basics Catholicism

For centuries it has been one of the Catholic Church‘s favourite topics. But the Pope has given a fresh reminder to his flock that Hell is hell and bemoaned the fact that it rarely gets talked about these days.

The 79-year old pontiff used a Mass in the gritty Fidene suburb of Rome to put damnation back on the agenda. “Jesus came to tell us everyone is wanted in paradise, and that hell, about which little gets said today, exists and is eternal for those who shut their hearts to his love,” Pope Benedict warned the congregation on Sunday.

The talk of fire and brimstone stopped there, as Pope Benedict failed to elaborate on what lay ahead for the sinner in the afterlife, adding only that “our real enemy is the attachment to sin, which can bring about the failure of our existence”.

But the tough talk was typical of the Pope’s conservative stance and an increasingly back-to-basics view of religion and society that has spilled over into political debate in Italy and beyond.

He warmed up this year with stern criticism of Italian politicians for considering a law giving rights to homosexual couples, attacks which have created serious rifts within the government of Romano Prodi. The Vatican then asked the UN this month to adjust the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to give doctors and nurses the right to boycott abortions and the manipulation of human embryos.

On Sunday, the Pope upset the EU’s 50th birthday party by suggesting that plummeting birth rates on the continent could send the continent to oblivion.

Although short on details about hell, the Pope has never gone so far as to dismiss the existence of the devil.

In The Ratzinger Report, a book-length interview published when he was the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Pope Benedict says the devil is “a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence. He is a powerful reality, a baneful superhuman freedom directed against God’s freedom.”

The Pope has not gone as far as John Milton, who depicted Satan “chained on a burning lake” in hell in Paradise Lost. If Pope Benedict has declined to paint a picture of hell, one expert said, believers should not let their imagination get away from them either.

“Forty to 50 years ago priests were depicting hell along the lines of the famous sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” said Michael Paul Gallagher, dean of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. “However, the talk of devils with forks tended merely to foster fear in a way unfaithful to the gospels themselves.”

“But it is a terrifying freedom to live a refusal of love and to live only for oneself. Hell is better seen as a state of self-separation from God or self-exclusion from love, rather than as God’s punishment. We can opt to live that way here on Earth and terrifyingly we can choose it for ever,” he added.

“Sartre said hell is other people, to which TS Eliot replied hell is oneself. But they both agreed that hell can begin on Earth.”

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The Guardian, UK
Mar. 27, 2007
Tom Kingston in Rome

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This post was last updated: Tuesday, March 27, 2007 at 12:39 PM, Central European Time (CET)