A new Piers Paul Read collection: what, he asks, has happened to Hell?
HELL AND OTHER DESTINATIONS
by Piers Paul Read
(Ignatius, 2006, 210pp, hardback, $40.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The tragic grandeur of Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost is often remarked on; thus, drawn irresistibly by its title, I opened this book in anticipation of a damned good read. I was slightly disappointed to discover that, apart from the first chapter, "Hell", it is a collection of articles, essays and book reviews written over the past 25 years. This serves me right for seeking cheap thrills.
Yet Piers Paul Read is always worth reading. Lucid, passionate and provocative, he is that rare specimen: an educated Catholic of orthodox persuasion. Inevitably, in a compilation such as this, there are some repetitions; the author admits to being "haunted" by Ezekiel 3:16-21. This is hardly surprising; Ezekiel states clearly that if you do not warn another "to renounce his evil ways" you will be held responsible for his spiritual death - and Read takes the prophet seriously.
Perhaps that is why he has reluctantly assumed the mantle of a minor prophet towards our "aphrodisiac society", as John Paul II described it. Most obviously in the chapter on Hell, but evident throughout his other pieces, Read looks askance at the fallout from Vatican II and holds the whole liberal agenda, from rejection of Humanae Vitae to an uncritical enthusiasm for liberation theology, up to rigorous scrutiny.
His capacity to resist the subtle pressures of his milieu began early; he was unhappy at Ampleforth in the 1950s, sensing that good manners had replaced the need for grace. Indeed, he is preoccupied with the gap between notional assent to objective truth and a practical accommodation with the world that has bedevilled Catholics in recent decades, born into a faith of seeming rock-like certainty only to witness - and often participate in - its zealous dismantling in the 60s and 70s.
Like Pascal, whom he quotes with approval, Read is baffled by the indifference of Catholics on the subject of the afterlife. Everyone knows that smoking will cause the death of the body, "but it is intolerable to point to sins that might lead to the death of the soul." What, he asks, has happened to Hell? (I asked a friend this very question recently, to be informed that only Hitler is definitely there but that "places have been reserved for Margaret Thatcher and General Pinochet".)
Read thinks that Gaudium et Spes bears some responsibility for the disappearance of final damnation, for it suggested that this world was no longer a vale of tears through which we pilgrimage carrying our cross; God had looked at his creation and found it very good. St Paul's warning, "Here is no abiding city", fell on increasingly careless Catholic ears, anxious to abide by the more relaxed mores of their fellow men.
Out went the four last things, death, judgement, hell or heaven; in came "covert apostasy" and slow decline. Is this too gloomy a picture? For those who think "decline" really means "renewal", obviously yes; for those like the author, who believes "the capital of Christianity is spent", definitely no.
There are two stimulating essays on Islam, "a religion of force" with a long history of conquest, and the Crusades: a response to this "force" on the part of Western Christians. Read applauds the recent re- thinking by the Cambridge historian, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and others on this troubled period, so misinterpreted by modern Muslims.
Christian apology, an act of holy charity on the part of John Paul II, is simply seen as craven weakness by those who wield the scimitar. Indeed, in a recent interview the historian Michael Burleigh - not a Catholic - tells the Church to "stop apologising" and "never compromise its core teachings and essential beliefs".
For his article on El Salvador (1990) Read visited the country, revealing the ugly side of neo-Marxist Christianity and suggesting that Archbishop Romero was somewhat manipulated by radical Jesuits. This did not endear him to the liberal intelligentsia. Reviewing A.N. Wilson's Paul, where the apostle of the Gentiles is patronisingly judged by Wilson to be "on a par with Blake, Dostoievsky and Simone Weil", Read accurately remarks that it is "not uncommon for those who lose their faith in God to idolise Art".
A 1997 article, "Screwtape Returns" amusingly demonstrates the perennial possibilities of this form of satire: "Express reservations about the Pope", "Speak out in favour of women priests", "Avoid saying the rosary", "Go easy on the veneration of the Saints".
An essay on "The Catholic Novelist in a Secular Society" (1997) is one of the most thoughtful. Read, a considerable novelist himself, asks, will the Catholic novelist dissociate himself from his work or will he "combine his faith with his talent to help democracy heal itself from the deficit of truth?" Waugh and Graham Greene were writing at a time when sin and salvation still had meaning; to be a Catholic writer today (I paraphrase Craig Raine) is to a be a Martian sending postcards home.
Read's moral and theological rigour matters; what he says is uncomfortable but often true. We need to hear it. He condemns the "cafeteria Catholic", asking "What has he done to defend the Faith? Little or nothing." He is also honest about his own failings, "conscious of the conflict between good and evil in myself." I detect a slight Manichaean tendency here.
He refers to "God's distaste for sex" and thinks it is "undeniable that the Church mistrusts the sexual drive in men and women." But God invented sex, after all, and thanks to the late Pope's superb teaching on the theology of the body, followed by the recent Deus Caritas Est, we don't have to have guilt complexes any more - as long as we do not separate Eros from agape in the manner of a certain Swiss theologian, long resident at Tubingen University, who gave Read a revealing interview in 1980. In the interests of charity I shall not name and shame him.
© 2006 Francis Phillips, Theotokos Catholic Books, www.theotokos.org.uk