Time and again, as I go about the work of evangelization, I encounter from both believers and non-believers, a fierce objection to the doctrine of Hell. In its most radical form, it runs something like this: how could a God who is described as infinitely good create, sustain, and send people to a place of everlasting torment? Many people have directed my attention to a video done some years ago by the comedian George Carlin, a former Catholic. In front of a deeply sympathetic audience, Carlin exposes what he takes to be the silly inconsistency of Catholic belief: “for one mortal sin (usually having to do with sex), God will condemn you to a place where you will suffer forever in unbearable pain…but yet,” the comedian goes on in a mocking voice, “He looooves you!” Judging from their hysterical reaction, the audience can’t get enough of this. One wonders whether Carlin doesn’t have a point. Perhaps we ought simply to jettison this horrifying and apparently illogical doctrine, this superstitious holdover from a primitive time.
Just about a month ago, I was in Spain with my Word on Fire team, filming for our ten-part Catholicism documentary. We visited the wonderful Prado Museum, where we were permitted to photograph some masterpieces by Valazquez, Fra Angelico, and El Greco. Next, we travelled to Avila, the hometown of St. Teresa, where we filmed along the magnificent medieval wall and inside of the splendid 12th century cathedral. The following day, we made our way to Segovia, where we visited the tomb of St. John of the Cross, and then to Toledo, home of the one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe. We were allowed to film in front of the the towering golden reredos, swarming with figures depicting Biblical scenes and the lives of the saints. To be in Spain is to swim in a culture that has been shaped dramatically by the Catholic imagination.
I just saw a remarkable film called “District 9.” It’s an exciting, science-fiction adventure movie, but it is much more than that. In fact, it explores, with great perceptiveness, a problem that has preoccupied modern philosophers from Hegel to Levinas, the puzzle of how to relate to “the other.” “District 9” sets up the question in the most dramatic way possible, for its plot centers around the relationship between human beings and aliens from outer space who have stumbled their way onto planet earth. As the film gets underway, we learn that, in the 1980’s a great interstellar space craft appeared and hovered over Johannesburg South Africa. When the craft was boarded, hundreds of thousands of weak and malnourished aliens were discovered. These creatures, resembling a cross between insects and apes, were herded into a great concentration camp near the city where they were allowed to live in squalor and neglect for twenty some years. In time, the citizens of Johannesburg came to find the aliens annoying and dangerous, and the central narrative of the movie commences with the attempt to shut down the camp and relocate the “prawns” to a site far removed from the city.
The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has unleashed for me a flood of memories and triggered a number of rueful meditations. I come from a family of intense Kennedyphiles. Both of my parents—Irish and Catholic to the bone—deeply admired the Kennedy family. My mother was especially fond of Rose, the pious and energetic matriarch of the clan. Magazines and newspapers reporting the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy were cherished keepsakes in our home when I was growing up; and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy (when I was eight) is one of the most vivid and poignant memories of my childhood. For my father, the Kennedys represented the continuation of the great Democratic tradition stretching back through Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, FDR, all the way to Al Smith. One of my earliest political memories was joining in with my father in lustily booing Richard Nixon as he appeared on the TV screen accepting the nomination of the Republican party at their 1972 convention in Miami. My father just didn’t care for Republicans, seeing them as the representatives of the interests of the rich. Democrats, he often told me, stick up for the little guy, the oppressed, those who fall through the cracks of the society. And they were, he argued, the politicians most in line with the instincts of the Catholic social teaching tradition. My uncle Tommy, another died-in-the-wool Democrat, often worried that, as my father moved into the upper middle class, he might commit the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican!
Just last week I was in Toulouse France, filming for my ten part documentary on Catholicism. I will admit that I was in Toulouse for fairly personal reasons. In the Dominican church of the Jacobins, in a golden casket situated under a side altar, are the remains of my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. I spent a good amount of time in silent prayer in front of Thomas’s coffin, thanking him for giving direction to my life. When I was a fourteen year old freshman at Fenwick High School, I was privileged to hear from a young Dominican priest the arguments for God’s existence that Thomas Aquinas formulated in the thirteenth century. I don’t entirely know why, but hearing those rational demonstrations lit a fire in me that has yet to go out. They gave me a sense of the reality of God and thereby awakened in me a desire to serve God, to order my life radically toward him. I’m a priest because of God’s grace, but that grace came to me through the mediation of Thomas Aquinas.