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quinta-feira, 29 de março de 2018

DEATH'S DOMINION

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Death’s Dominion


The Pope’s suggestion that Hell is imaginary shows his instinct to reconcile eternal truths with the mores and understanding of the modern age

In church services today across the world, Christians will recall the fate of a figure nailed to a cross, flanked by two criminals, in ancient Palestine. More than that, they will affirm their faith that Jesus of Nazareth was both human and divine, and that in his crucifixion he voluntarily suffered and atoned for the sins of humanity.

In two millennia since, Christ’s followers have wondered and reasoned about the fate of those who are saved and those who are lost. This week the Pope has injected a distinctive view into this theological debate. In an interview with La Repubblica, he appears to suggest that Hell is an imaginary construct and that the fate of unrepentant sinners, rather than eternal torment, is to disappear.

If the pontiff is being accurately cited, this is not a departure from Christian orthodoxy. It is a reiteration of a longstanding position in the church, and a humane one that accords with modern mores. If there is a hereafter, it is unknown and unknowable. The justification for a virtuous life is not the dread of an eternity of torment but that it is the right course for adherents of all faiths and none. Virtue is independent of authority or the promise of reward.

Since his election in 2013, Francis has made stumbles. The most notable is his apparent failure to grasp the seriousness of the church’s historic complicity in crimes of sexual abuse against children. On a visit to Latin America in January, he was asked about protests against a Chilean bishop. He replied that the allegations were slander, without evidence to support them.

This was not the right tone of inquiry, let alone humility. Nor was it in keeping with the Pope’s approach in other matters, spiritual as well as temporal. The most distinctive feature of his papacy has been his willingness to side with the church’s flock rather than its establishment.

Francis’s illustrious predecessor John XXIII promised, when opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, to “open the windows and let in the fresh air”. On many issues, and in many ways, Francis has been the embodiment of that hope. He is the first Pope to have addressed the United States Congress, where he urged compassion for the poor and action on the threat of climate change. On issues of state and social ethics, he has shown he is more aware of modern mores than his predecessors, and a leader in moulding them.

In matters of faith, the Pope has been more circumspect but still compassionate. He replied rhetorically, “who am I to judge?”, when asked about gay people living dignified Christian lives. This willingness to accept the limits of knowledge while affirming the foundation of faith is likely to be an enduring mark of his papacy.

That combination of orthodoxy tempered by curiosity has become a trademark. It is potentially a fruitful way for the church to approach the challenge of spreading the gospel in an age of pluralism and scepticism. Understanding what it means to be a Christian does change through the ages, and there is nothing wrong in this.

Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher of the medieval church, was rendered uncharacteristically dumb when trying to imagine the pleasures of paradise. In the Summa Theologica, he speculated that to perfect the happiness of the saints in Heaven, they would be “allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned”.

To the modern mind, this is vindictive. It conjures images of first-class passengers delighting in the discomfort of those at the back of the aircraft. Christian leaders have since offered St Paul’s simpler message that while “the wages of sin is death”, there is solace in faith. The Pope’s clarification that there is no such thing as eternal fire and brimstone even for those who eschew faith should be a reassurance to everyone
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