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Purgatory’s Appeal

A letter about Tom Bethell's "The Decline of Faith."

By 7.1.11

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RE: Tom Bethell's The Decline of Faith:

Dear Tom,

Thank you for that article on the decline of faith. It was an enjoyable essay, and my reaction to it has nothing to do with schadenfreude, because the trends you cite worry me, too. What impressed me was how you covered a lot of ground in a little space, then added a dollop of wisdom. Writing like that spurs me into raising my own game when submitting work to the magazine. I meant to say so in the online comments associated with your essay, but was intimidated when I noticed that more than a hundred people had already weighed in on what you said by the time I read it. Not all of the respondents moved discussion forward -- did a comic war over whether scripture has any warrant for eating pork really need to break out? -- but obviously you touched a nerve that needed touching.

Christopher Hitchens does not correspond with B-list pundits like me, but I'm glad you quoted from at least some of what he's emailed to you. I hope all who read Mr. Hitchens' take on the so-called "invention of Purgatory" realize that his theology makes as much sense as clown shoes in a tango class. Purgatory does not involve "the possibility of some kind of appeal." Rather, as Christians like Peter Kreeft have pointed out many times, Purgatory can be thought of as "heaven's waiting room." More formally, "final purification of the elect" is -- per the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with which I think you are familiar -- entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The backhand from Hitchens calling the doctrine of Purgatory an "invention" was likewise unwarranted, albeit predictable. Two clicks on the Web might have given Hitchens' cockamamie "invention" thesis an "insuperable problem" of its own, while it tried in vain to explain why graffiti in the catacombs includes prayers for the dead, which make no sense if they're already enjoying the beatific vision or eternally separated from God in Hell.

Richard Dawkins actually comes closer to the mark by summarizing Purgatory as a kind of divine Ellis Island, although I'm not persuaded he would have put the matter quite like that if he thought the whole doctrine were certifiably ridiculous. Not to get all "inside baseball" on people who'd rather play poker, but that the misguided Johann Tetzel sullied Purgatory by leaning too hard on the corollary doctrine of indulgences while raising money to fund the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica does not mean that postmodern cynics like Hitchens and Dawkins know more about the Four Last Things than ancient heavyweights like Aquinas and Augustine.

Perhaps another reason for the decline of faith lies just there, in widespread ignorance of history. Looking forward is all to the good, but Christians ought to be able to look back as well, and the megachurches of my experience seem to have a problem with that, especially when they make a point of ignoring anything too closely associated with the "mackerel snappers" from which they're spinoffs. For example, a popular church in my own town has a main campus and several satellite campuses. Its founding pastor, an eloquent gentleman on the dark side of fifty, said in a sermon (sorry, "message") that he went to a Catholic Mass for the first time while visiting the Holy Land less than a decade ago. Perhaps that explains why the web site for his church now cycles through a banner saying "We are one church in multiple locations." In less charitable moments, I've wanted to approach that guy with a Chick-fil-a sandwich in hand (peace offering!) and say something like "Dude! That one church in multiple locations idea? That's two thousand years old, man!" Of course, syntax like that would betray both my California roots and my Roman Catholic sympathies; it's not a conversation I'm ready to have yet.

You mentioned that religious faith is like a muscle that has to be exercised. I think the analogy is apt, and orders of magnitude better than comedian George Carlin's attempt to paint faith as something like "a lift in your shoe" (meaning that some people need it and some don't). Father Benedict Groeschel's thoughts are especially helpful in this regard. You may perhaps have heard of him; he's a legend among Catholic preachers and a fixture in the Bronx. In the gray habit he wears as a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Groeschel looks for all the world like a stunt double for Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies. At the end of his nonfiction book, "The Miracle Detective," Randall Sullivan quotes Fr. Groeschel as saying, "Faith is a gift. It is also a decision. Accept the gift, and you'll make the decision."

That's good stuff. Thanks again for inspiring such thoughts.
-- Patrick O'Hannigan
North Carolina

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.