In May this year an unrepentant Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’, died. Terry Kilbride, the brother of a victim, hoped that Brady would ‘rot in hell’. Perhaps we agree: Brady would appear on many people’s short list of the wicked. We sympathise with Kilbride’s immediate reaction. But then, perhaps, we think about it. If you were charged with deciding Brady’s punishment, how long would you think he should be tortured? Would a week be enough? Or a year? Or would you dismiss torture altogether as a barbaric punishment always to be condemned? But if we look at the descriptions of Hell as they appear in Scripture, we find that a year would scarcely meet the case. Indeed, after 14 billion years (the age of the Universe) the pains of Hell would not really have got started. They go on forever.
So how do we cope with a God whose apparent moral approach is grotesque? The descriptions of Hell in Scripture are explicit, and, in many cases, put into the mouth of Christ. We must deal with it in the same way that we deal with the statement that the world was created in six days. At that time, in the absence of a modern judicial system, criminal punishments were typically brutal. Take your choice between hung, drawn and quartered, broken on a wheel, buried underground, or burnt at the stake. In that culture Hell makes a little more sense. We have to settle for the reality that God is infinitely just and merciful – and leave it in his hands.
Why does this matter? I want to take you back 76 years: imagine that seven year old boy cleaning his teeth in the washroom at boarding school. He is desperately trying to avoid swallowing any water, which would have broken his fast, as he feared he would not have the courage to avoid Communion in front of his friends. Yes, it was me. Some years later a teenage pupil was drowned: we were much relieved to hear that he had been to Communion that morning – and so not bound for Hell, as we probably were.
That is old history. But I wonder how much we have really changed. In 2015 the American bishops produced an excellent paper on pornography. It pointed out that using it was mortally sinful, although they specified the need for full knowledge and deliberate consent. That’s a neat phrase which on examination has no practical meaning: there is no way in which we can we be certain that any decision fulfils either criterion – even though our salvation apparently turns on it. Then we read dear Pope Francis telling us, at Fatima, that the godless life “risks leading to Hell”. I wonder how many godless victims of the three great tragedies this summer were caught in unrepented mortal sin at their sudden death. And how many failed the obligatory requirement of Baptism?
We might start by accepting that the Church ruled its community predominantly by fear for 95 percent of its history. The positive approach through virtue was of course plainly expressed but, in the human psyche, guilt and threat are far more powerful than encouragement. In the 20th century the Jesuit moralist, Henry Davis, could still speak of “indoctrinating” children until resistance to evil becomes a second nature.
It is ironic that secular society has learned that autonomy, responsibility and an understanding of values are the keys to positive performance. Of course there is a need for basic rules but the emphasis has to be on achievement. For us that is to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we do it step by step, even if occasionally we slip. Why waste time looking downwards when our target is above us? I have no doubt that the diminution of devotion within our modern Catholic societies can be largely attributed to the Church’s minatory tradition. Why am I not surprised to be told that nowadays the majority of British Catholics accept abortion at the mother’s choice?
St Paul speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. They have all remained close to me throughout a lifetime. Despite the Church’s vocabulary, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine. I suspect he loves sinners more than the goody-goodies – they are opportunities for his favourite activity: forgiveness. Even for Brady I recall the phrase: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground is mercy sought and mercy found.” I pray so.