Last summer I remember when the new pope, Francis, made his comments on homosexuality, a lot of people were saying that he was speaking out in support of LGBT people. This was a big change from Ratzinger/Benedict and his belief (stated pre-Pope-ification) that homosexual acts are “evil” and “against the natural order”.
But what Francis actually said was that gay acts should be forgiven, not that they were not sinful. He still believes (and every Catholic is required to believe) that for a man to have sex with another man is a sin, that every time it happens it somehow decreases the general wellbeing of the human race.
He did say that “sinful” gay sex should be “forgiven”. But in Catholicism there is absolutely no sin that cannot be forgiven if the “sinner” repents. Ratzinger/Benedict would completely agree with Francis that this “sin” should be “forgiven”.
The change in rhetoric, the respectful tone Francis adopted – these have no doubt made life a little bit easier for gay people living in a Catholic environment. This does mark a serious change, and attempts by the church to catch up with people’s experiences and ideas.
But think about what he said, and try to square it with your own beliefs on homosexuality. This is entirely safe for me to say because there is at least a 90% chance your beliefs are far to the left of considering gay sex “sinful.”
If their officially-stated ideas are so divorced from the opinions of most people, then why is the Catholic Church so powerful in Ireland? Who are these people who think gay sex is a sin? Why do they deserve a fancy building in every parish, a say in the running of almost every school, a shout-out in the constitution, the ear of politicians and the allegiance of huge numbers of people? Why did RTE make a huge payoff to homophobes for calling them homophobes, and why did the Broadcasting Authority rule that if we have a gay person on TV talking about gay marriage, we have to have a homophobe on as well to make the counter-argument?
Another question, while I’m on a roll with all these questions: according to Catholic teaching, am I going to hell?
Maybe in the future kids will learn about Christianity in classes on ancient literature, philosophy or anthropology, and choose for themselves whether to believe it. I learned my “facts” in mass every Sunday for the better part of two decades and at primary and secondary school. Then I gave religious beliefs far more of a benefit of the doubt than they deserved, partly because I was (and still am) repulsed by Dawkins-style elitist, formalistic atheism, which was the only kind of atheism that was presented to me. The result of all this was that even at the age of twenty was still clinging to some kind of 18th-century-style “theist” radical social, William Blake-style Christianity.
I am open to correction, but as far as I know about Catholic teaching (and I have read the required texts), the answer is Yes. Yes, if Christianity is true, then I am going to go to hell.
The places where dead people go break down as follows:
Purgatory is the triage area where you go immediately after death, to do penance and for the cosmic powers to decide, on the basis of this, where to send you: Heaven, Hell or Limbo. Heaven is for those who are sorry for their sins and have done penance for them. Hell is for the unrepentant. Limbo is for “good pagans” and unbaptised babies.
Limbo is Heaven without God. It’s for those who never had a chance to hear the “good news” but who behaved themselves reasonably well in life. Limbo actually sounds OK. So despite the fact that I’m not a Christian, will I go there if I’m good to other people?
No. Maybe if I was living in an isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest. But I had a chance to hear the word of God. I had thousands of chances. I have heard the good news droned in a hundred echoing, vaulted, stained-glass buildings and taught as fact in dozens of classrooms. At this stage, most of humanity must have been at the receiving end of the word of god, whether on TV, radio, online, Gideon bibles, ads at bus stops, strange people in the street, or through school or parents.
At first, of course, I accepted it. As dogma, I would never have swallowed religion – there was too much reactionary rubbish and superstition. But in its vague liberal form (“that’s just a metaphor”, “the church has changed its position on that”) I absorbed Christianity, partly because I liked how its central figure was a radical who was tortured to death by the state but mainly because my brain had been trained from a very young age to regard these improbable stories and classical-age philosophical musings as fact. Gradually between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one it dawned on me that I was giving too much credit to a series of books written in the Iron Age. In any case by the mid-teens my “religious beliefs” had become so woolly and vague and whatever-I-wanted-them-to-be that I was already, in effect, an atheist. Dramatic as it sounds, it’s a fact: I had renounced God! And so too do most people.
It is now completely alien to me to believe that the Bible is holy and contains immortal truths. I might as well bow down before the Baghavad-Gita or, to pick up the book on my desk, The City and the City by China Mieville. It happened to be the Bible that I was in thrall to, not because of the value of that book, but because in the first millenium AD, when people didn’t know any better, the Catholic Church spread all over Europe; and because in Medieval times the Church was an essential and powerful part of the social order; and because in modern times it has persisted in a weakened form; and, finally, because in Ireland the capitalist system developed late and weak, and the rich and powerful in this country have had to lean, medieval-style, on the church.
So I heard the word of God, and I have renounced Him. The only thing that will make me reconsider is if, following death, my consciousness awakens in some strange place that looks like Purgatory, and if, after I’ve had a good look around and talked to a lot of people, I have convinced myself that it is in fact Purgatory. The folks there will ask me to repent my sins. I will not repent having sex outside marriage. I will not repent campaigning for a woman’s right to choose. I will not truthfully say sorry for renouncing belief in God. So I will be sent to hell.
Do I deserve hell for these “sins”?
First off, it’s easy to develop a cartoonish, comical kind of vision of hell from images in South Park, The Simpsons, etc.
This helps us to forget what a sick, horrible and cruel blackmail the idea of hell really is. As James Joyce recalls being told as a child: In hell, “by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.”
Do I deserve to be tortured cruelly for eternity? Do the vast majority of the human race deserve to be tortured horribly for an inconceivable length of time? Is this just?
Back to Joyce:
“Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! […] Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; […] and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended.”
Those who still cling to religious beliefs must confront this question. Christianity teaches us that all but the tiniest portion of the experience of a soul (those periods spent on Earth and in Purgatory) is spent in one of three places: Heaven, Limbo or Hell. Because they have committed “sins” that they will never be able to truly admit were bad, and because they have ignored “the word of God”, the vast majority of humans in existence in the world today will end up in Hell. For eternity.
Some more general musings…
The argument, “If there is a god and he’s good, why do horrible things happen on Earth?” pales in significance next to this question: If there’s a god and he’s good, why do horrible things happen disproportionately to people who are poor, non-white, gay, or female? If god allows bad things to happen to test us, why does he subject rich people to much easier tests?
But both pale in significance next to this one: If there is a god and he’s good, why does Hell exist? If religious beliefs are positive and a force for good in the world, why have great minds spent precious brain cells imagining this terrible place?
Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is to say, it’s very, very difficult, practically impossible. But if any such kingdom exists, it is actually impossible for me to enter it. That’s because it’s impossible for me to accept that it’s a sin for a man to have sex with a man, or that it is a sin for a person to doubt the historic and scientific validity of Iron-Age manuscripts once they have been presented to him or her.
And if churches change their teachings and say that being gay isn’t a sin anymore, or announces that on closer inspection hell does not exist, then where are the “eternal truths”, and what is the use of religion? In any case that just reeks of improvisation and wishful thinking. If it’s a thing so woolly that you can twist it to mean anything, isn’t it just a mind-game?
I write this because I know kind, intelligent and sympathetic people who have Christian beliefs. I have known priests and nuns who showed me great kindness and who have done wonderful and positive things for the human race. Now if I was Richard Dawkins, I would just say those people are stupid, and I’d say they’re evil and stupid if they happened to be Muslim. But I’m not Dawkins. With an understanding of the history of churches as powerful institutions and religions as powerful sets of ideas operating in a class society, I think it’s more effective to pose rational arguments. In the Christian cosmic order, acts of love between two women are a sin, for which these two women will be condemned to eternal torture if they don’t truthfully say and believe that they’re sorry they ever did it. I don’t think any religious person I know, outside of a dogmatic fringe considered lunatic by everyone else, can really stand over that.