Equal Time for Catholics

The title of this post maybe somewhat misleading. I am not a Catholic, nor do I have any intention of becoming a Catholic. But I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to editorials for the Deseret News about the retired pope and the newly elected one, and my admiration and respect for both men and the organization they were chosen to lead grows with each passing day.

So many observers were hoping and praying for a new Holy Father who would abandon both scripture and tradition and allow members of this venerable institution to ignore all teachings they find uncomfortable or inconvenient. Instead, they have been and will be led by men of integrity who stand fixed and immovable as the chasm between the values of the world and the values of the church grows ever wider.

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I greatly appreciate that, mainly because society at large is doing everything it can to marginalize the influence and even the validity of religion as an institutional participant in secular life. And I’m keenly aware of the fact that what’s going to happen to my church in that process is going to happen to the Catholic Church first.

I’ve thought about that these past couple of days as I’ve watched a slew of friends change their Facebook profile pictures to “equal” signs in support of legalized gay marriage. I’ve written enough on that particular subject that I have no interest in addressing the specifics again here. That debate has played out to the point where there are very few minds or positions to be changed with further discussion. Indeed, those equal signs are a clear indication that gay marriage opponents have lost the battle over framing the issue, and subsequently the entire war in the process.

From henceforth and forever, being opposed to any form of gay marriage for any reason is an announcement that you are a champion of inequality. It is tantamount to advocating the return of segregated drinking fountains and trying to get people who are different from you to ride in the back of the bus. All who advocate even the slightest degree of caution in redefining an institution that may well predate civilization itself can now be dismissed with no intellectual effort. Such people are now bigots, haters, homophobes. As such, they can no longer legitimately participate in the discussions that will shape the brave new world in which we now live.

It’s already happening.

Catholic charities and adoption agencies are getting tremendous pushback because of their unwillingness to ignore their own unpopular doctrines about the family. The pressure will continue to grow, and the church will likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to function as they have for centuries. The Catholic Church, as well as all other like-minded so-called religious bigots, will likely lose their tax-exempt status in the United States at the hands of the agents of equality who will use that noble ideal to equate Catholics and Mormons and their ilk with Klansmen or Nazi skinheads or any other kind of loathsome hate group that is rightfully despised by people of goodwill everywhere.

Again, it is already happening.

Please understand that I believe we are all equal in the sight of God, and we should all be equal in the sight of the law. No human being should be subject to cruelty or even unkindness, and hatred does nothing but corrode and destroy. Understand, too, that these are ideals I have been taught as bedrock principles of my religious faith. These are also ideals that are taught from every pulpit in the Catholic Church.

Eroding the influence of such religious voices may now seem to be a good idea in order to achieve certain policy goals, but the long-term effect will be an erosion of not just the institutions, but the morality they espouse that has done much to make the world a better place.

So, despite my many theological differences with my Catholic friends, I stand united with them in countering the movement to consign religious faith to the dustbin of history. When it comes to defending the right to faith, we are all Catholics now.

Hell

My Esteemed Colleague and I have had many lengthy and contentious political exchanges of late, most of them focused around his newfound appreciation for Joseph Stalin and the assignment of responsibility for the instigation of the Korean War. I shan’t recount all the details here, but, instead, will focus on one subset of the discussion that has triggered a theological reassessment on my part.

Specifically, My Esteemed Colleague believes that raising children to follow any given religion constitutes child abuse, because all religions are based on irrational threats of eternal damnation and hell.

So let’s talk about hell.

satanI can recall being quite terrified as an impressionable youngster by certain passages in the Book of Mormon that seem to coincide with My Esteemed Colleague’s diagnosis. Witness this pleasant little passage from 2 Nephi 28:23:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

Yowsa.

This kept me awake at night. I remember looking up the word “brimstone” and realizing the lake of such stuff would not be a pleasant place to spend eternity. It wasn’t until I brought my terror to the attention of my mother, who was allegedly abusing me by indoctrinating me into Mormondom, that I gained a new, and, I think, proper perspective.

In a nutshell, Mom explained that we Mormons believe that endless torment isn’t endless.

“Excuse me?” you may ask, as I did at the time.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She directed me to the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains this gem in verse six:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

Confused yet? I was. The rest of the section, however, sheds a bit more light on the subject.

4 And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.

5 Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.

6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.

8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.

9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.

10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.

My favorite part of this is where the Lord admits that references to hell are “more express than other scriptures,” because such language will “work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.” In other words, the Lord concedes that he uses such language to scare the hell out of people, so to speak, and sometimes that makes people better. But with regard to actual hell, I learned long ago that one need not fear that God will inflict infinite punishment for finite offenses. The punishment may be described as endless, in that there will, always and forever be punishment for sin, but no matter our level of wickedness, our participation in such endless punishment will only be transitory.

This, among other things, sets Mormonism apart from orthodox Christianity, which generally preaches a static heaven and hell, both of which are fixed and immutable. As such, I fear both. A static heaven sounds tremendously boring, and a static hell is too monstrous to contemplate. According to the doctrines of my church, I have no real fear of hell in the traditional sense that My Esteemed Colleague might recognize, and I make every effort to teach my children that the goal in following Christ is not to avoid hell, but rather to receive as many benefits of heaven as are available in this life and the life that’s coming.

So what’s coming?

Well, Mormons preach that the actual division closest to the static heaven/hell model can only be found between death and the final judgment, but even in that case, the Mormon version differs significantly from tradition, and we teach that people will have the opportunity to get out of the figurative brimstone lake. The division only exists as a result of people’s acceptance of Christ, and, should they accept Christ when given the opportunity in the world of spirits where we will live prior to the Resurrection, they will end up on paradise, not prison. This solves the theological quandary that has plagued Christianity for millennia: i.e.what happens to all the people who die without any opportunity to accept Christ’s sacrifice? Traditional explanations suggest that they end up burning forever through no fault of their own. What kind of unjust, hideous deity would create something and that inflict eternal suffering upon it for crimes it was never given the chance to understand?

Thankfully, God is both just and unhideous.

After the Judgment and Resurrection, everyone will be assigned to a Kingdom of Glory, and even the most loathsome and foul among us will eternally enjoy a redemption that “surpasses all understanding.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:89) So people who reject Jesus’ payment on their behalf will eventually pay for their own sins, and that payment may be lengthy and miserable, but once the account is settled, an eternity of glory and happiness awaits them.

Glimpses of this worldview can be found in the Bible. In the 16th Psalm, David, after having murdered Uriah in order to get adulterous access to his bride,rejoices that God “will not leave my soul in hell.” Note that he doesn’t claim that he’ll avoid hell altogether, only that God won’t abandon him there.

The doctrine does suggest, however, that there is a tiny, tiny sliver of humanity that will receive an eternal reward comparable to being abandoned eternally. These are the so-called “Sons of Perdition,” who commit what is called the “sin against the Holy Ghost.” In the New Testament, Matthew 12: 31-32, the Savior himself speaks about the “unpardonable sin:”

“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

Mormons believe that committing this sin is very, very difficult to do, and 99.9% of all the people who come to this world wouldn’t be able to do it even if they tried. Joseph Smith described at as follows:

“He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it.”

In other words, to commit the unpardonable sin, one would have to, by means of the Holy Ghost, have a perfect, unassailable knowledge of who Jesus is and what he did, and then knowingly, willfully oppose him anyway. That requires a level of knowledge that has been given to only a tiny group of people throughout all of history, and, among those with that capacity, such deliberate rejection of the truth is exceedingly rare indeed. I think, out of the billions who go through the mortal experience, the people who will ultimately be subjected to such a fate can likely be counted on one hand.

As I get older, and watch people from all walks of life muddle through the disappointments and miseries of mortality, I become increasingly confident that the Lord did not send us here to fail. He operates according to his own timetable, but whether in this life or the next, it is likely that more of us will come to appreciate his mercy, and the reward that awaits us is far, far greater than we can now conceive.

North Korea sucks.