What's happened to Hell? The question here is not about its nature - whether it is fire and brimstone, eternal deprivation of the vision of God, or endless viewing of TV commercials - but about the long-standing silence of the Church on the subject.
The absence of Hell from homilies during the past 30 years deserves comment and explanation. Before Vatican II, numerous Catholic priests made reputations through their frequent Dantesque descriptions from the pulpit of the eternal fire awaiting unrepentant sinners. Although these zealous Jeremiahs probably caused distress and over-scrupulosity even among the blameless, they provided salutary reminders that God is not mocked and must not be lightly dismissed as merely a God of love.
With the pendulum of attitudes to Hell now having swung from heavy emphasis to total neglect, it is as if a golden age of virtue has suffused the Catholic community, making Hell redundant. The word itself seems to have lost ecclesiastical correctness and been consigned to the dustbin with other four-letter words of ill-repute.
A priest once made the point to me more delicately. "Hell," he said, "is played down by the Church these days as too negative," from which it seemed to me reasonable to conclude that the Church has decided not to confront congregations with a topic about which they would rather not be reminded. Perhaps, also, mention of sin, obligations and other unpleasantness would encourage further defections.
One result of this continuing tenderness for people's sensitivities, however, has been the emptying of pews and the absence of the once familiar sight of queues at confessionals on Saturday afternoons - an enigmatic situation at a time not notable for public or private virtue, inside or outside the Catholic community.
Have personal-convenience con- sciences - what the Pope calls relativism - taken over?
It used to be said that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Would some fearless prelate or priest please inform us as to what has happened to Hell, and why?
P. J. JONES