Last month, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published his “Manifesto of Faith.” The four-page text reiterated certain basic Catholic doctrines he considers imperiled in the current confused state of the church.
The brevity of the document did not prevent a firestorm erupting in the Catholic blogosphere. Although neither the person nor the words nor the actions of Pope Francis are cited in the manifesto, the commentaries seized on the text as an implicit criticism of the current pontiff. Admirers of the pope condemned the manifesto as unbalanced, unbiblical, disloyal, reactionary, nostalgic, rigid, legalistic, sexist and otiose. Critics of the pope praised the declaration as prophetic, courageous, salutary, illuminating, crusading, necessary, groundbreaking, breathtaking and even miraculous. Predictably, the U.S. debate pivoted around the questions of sexuality lurking in the manifesto’s discussion of priestly ordination and access to the sacraments.
Too often, we reduce Christian hope to psychological optimism or to yet another five-year plan for establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
Overlooked in this controversy is a quieter part of the manifesto, the section (No. 5) dealing with eternal life. It touches a problem in church life rather different from our usual kerfuffle over ethics: the reduction of Christian hope to psychological optimism or to yet another five-year plan for establishing the kingdom of God on earth or to the banal assertion that dawn will follow the night.
The manifesto concisely summarizes the Catholic conception of eternal life in a lapidary paragraph:
Every human being has an immortal soul, which in death is separated from the body, hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Death makes the human person’s decision for or against God definitive. Everyone has to face the particular judgment immediately after death. Either a purification is necessary, or the person goes directly to heavenly bliss and is allowed to see God face to face. There is also the dreadful possibility that a person will remain opposed to God to the very end…. The punishment of hell is a terrible reality.
This reiteration of the Catholic belief in heaven, hell and purgatory might appear a recitation of the obvious, a reminder of simple truths learned in grade-school catechism classes. But it is no longer obvious in the contemporary approach to death and judgment operative in American Catholicism and elsewhere.
The church’s doctrine of the last things underscores the mystery we face as we ponder death.
Catholic funeral services increasingly have little to say of the judgment the human person faces at the moment of death and at the end of time. It is as if the free choices we make in this life no longer have eternal consequences. We certainly pray for the deceased in thanksgiving for his or her life, but our prayer often lacks the quality of a suffrage for the salvation of the soul of the deceased.
Despite the content of the appointed prayers for the funeral liturgy, our services increasingly imitate the “life celebration” ceremonies of mainstream secular America. In more solemn versions, the deceased is remembered for his or her major achievements. In more jocular versions, friends and relatives recall the deceased’s funniest moments or favorite jokes. Some resemble more of an instant canonization, with the assurance that the deceased is already in glory or, more modestly, “in a better place.” Generations of clergy, nuns and lay catechists taught their charges to face the mystery of death with sober hope, eschewing the extremes of despair or presumption. In our flattened version of Christian hope, the last things endure but they seem of little moment.
The church’s doctrine of the last things underscores the mystery we face as we ponder death. This eschatological vision rests on paradoxes: divine justice and divine mercy, purgation and glorification, judgment and pardon, divine sovereignty and human freedom. Both the “Dies Irae” and the “In Paradisum” are intertwined in the mystery. Dante’s Divine Comedy remains the supreme literary icon of a vision that, for all of its complexity, remains veiled in opacity.
In every chapter of their journey toward the end of time, the church’s members both remember and forget the Gospel. Our current American way of death, to which the church in our culture is not immune, often involves a forgetting of the last things. As valuable as they are to a family plunged into mourning, memorials and condolences alone fall far short of the hope that springs from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Müller’s summary of basic Catholic doctrine on eternal life is an antidote to this forgetting. It is a reminder of the glory we ultimately seek as Christians, of the majesty of God in exercising both justice and mercy and of the eternal import of our own exercise of personal freedom. It is a simple sketch of the sober hope of glory that should mark the Christian soul and of the source of that ultimate hope, the paschal mystery. We forget this at our peril.