Pope Francis and the Prophets of Doom

By Mike Lewis, 10 April 2024
Pope Francis during the General Audience on 15 February 2023. Image: Vatican Media


Are you a hopeful Catholic or a “prophet of doom”?

The furious response by the pope’s critics after he said in January that he hopes hell is empty might offer some clues. Regardless of denomination or sect, insisting on Massa Damnata (the idea that the vast majority of people are damned) seems to be a sign of a pessimistic rigorism that sadly infects many religiously observant people and communities.

Even though the Catholic Church allows us to hope for the salvation of others — including non-Catholics, unbaptized infants, or those who die by suicide — and even permits us to hope that hell is empty, this hope is condemned by traditionalists and other rigorists as dangerous or even heretical. These prophets of doom apparently think that a constant and acute fear of eternal damnation is necessary for living a life of virtue and good morals, and that the Church would be best served by instilling this fear in its members.

Many take this view even further — insisting that it is dogma that unbaptized infants go to hell, or condemning Pope Francis’s beatification of an unborn child (along with the rest of his family) who was murdered by Nazis as “an absurdity almost worse than any of his others.”

I’d say this is fundamentalism and that imposing such ideas on others is spiritual abuse.

An approach to spirituality that is based principally on imperfect contrition (repenting for fear of hell) — while “sufficient” to obtain forgiveness for one’s sins — is far from the ideal because it is rooted in a mentality that falls short of the hope and trust found in a genuine response to the Universal Call to Holiness. Pope Francis wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate, “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (no. 14). We cannot allow ourselves to be limited by a spirit of vindictiveness or retribution towards our enemies, but we should seek to participate in the love and mercy of God, which is without limits.

Catholics believe that the Church is always growing in its understanding of the Gospel, and — in discerning the “signs of the times” — re-proposes the faith in a way that is always ancient but ever new. Later in Gaudete et Exultate, Pope Francis explains why this is liberating:

“Naturally, this attitude of listening entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it, as we seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the ‘today’ of salvation. It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light” (no. 173).

In today’s world, fear is nothing new. Discouragement, despair, and nihilism are constant threats to our well-being. The last thing most people want today is to be coerced into an ancient system of beliefs grounded in fear.

Today, the “newness of the Gospel” is found in respect for human dignity and in the answer to our search for meaning. People today yearn for a light in the darkness and the hope of salvation. People need to know that they are deeply loved and truly loveable. And this is the message of Jesus.

In recent years I have done a lot of research on high-demand religions, and I have watched far too many cult documentaries. Most of these groups employ a fearful approach in order to coerce members to comply with their rules and doctrines. I believe that a fear-based approach reduces Catholicism to just another player in the marketplace of fundamentalist sects. All such groups — whether it’s the Amish, Fundamentalist Mormons, Quiverfull, or the SSPX — have similar traits (and a lot of abuse hidden just under the surface). It is typical for members of these groups to see outsiders and apostates as damned and to live in constant fear of hell for themselves and their loved ones.

Those who escape such groups have often reached the point where their despair has become so great that they would rather go to hell than stay in the group. One very recent example of this was expressed by former American Idol runner-up David Archuleta — who recently came out as gay and left the LDS church — in his latest single, “Hell Together.” He explains, “I wrote this song based off what my mom told me a few days after I said I was stepping away from our church. She said she was going to step away too and then said, ‘If you’re going to hell, we’re all going to hell with you.’”

Does it need to be this way in the Catholic Church, too? Catholics truly are meant to be people of hope, and that hope must be rooted in a heartfelt love of God and others. That doesn’t mean we will always have the answers. But it does mean that our love must be unconditional, generous, and open. It means never shunning but always welcoming those whose faith has been harmed. Sometimes it means that all we can do is open our hearts and offer a listening ear, or to choose simply to struggle together with our brothers and sisters.

It is striking that Pope Francis’s first response in his first longform interview following his 2013 election was “I am a sinner.” It was an answer to Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”

The pope added, “The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” This recognition of his own sinfulness — as well as his constantly reminding us to pray, repent, convert, and evangelize — stands in stark contrast to the claims of Massa Damnata Catholics who say his view on hell gives license to sin.

This is not the case at all. Holiness is freely choosing to turn away from sin and to live a life of virtue and sacrifice because you love God and want to do his will. True holiness is about hoping for God’s mercy for everyone, not about succumbing to coercion, fear, or threats. True holiness is about respecting the consciences of others and not trying to coerce others on beliefs that must be chosen freely.

Our calling, which is also the message of Pope Francis, is that we should seek to be like Christ in service to others. To always share the Gospel by word and deed. To know God is not a tyrant and that he always forgives a repentant heart. Our Father loves us so much that he sent his only Son to redeem the world.

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.


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