The paternal God

A day or two ago I found myself in discussion with a Catholic friend. Like me, he is elderly; unlike me he is a lifelong bachelor. Where my Catholic work is mainly through writing, his is through Catholic associations and his own busy parish.

We were talking about Catholic moral teaching in our youth. Its structure was simple. Sinful acts were clearly identified and related, if sometimes rather remotely, to the Ten Commandments. And a careful distinction was made between mortal sin and venial sin: the former were ‘serious matter’ and required full knowledge and full consent. The punishment was hell for all eternity. It was later that we learnt about ‘structural sin’: for example that homosexual acts were intrinsically wrong because they flouted the sexual structures which God had created. In fact it was emphasised that any sexual sin, including ‘impure thoughts’ was matter for mortal sin.

I am writing about many years ago. But the basic pattern still exists. There is a greater degree of understanding of course. A good example of this in the Catechism’s treatment of self-abuse – where it is recognised that in many cases it may be at least partially excused. But its evil nature remains.

Looking at this orthodox pattern of Catholic morality, which on the whole I carry now only in the back of my mind, I was struck by its grotesqueness. If we imagine being in front of a magistrate for many equivalent faults we would expect a fine in most cases, possibly a short stay in prison or something of that order. But God apparently would send us to the pains of Hell for all eternity. And eternity is not just the billions of years since the universe was created, it goes on forever. Think of all the really evil people in history, ancient or modern, and consider how many people would really deserve that. Wouldn’t a billion years be enough even for Hitler? Why would I prefer the justice of the magistrate to the justice of God?

I assume that the culture of the times when this Catholic system of morality was built, led to the authorities believing that only the most extreme threats of punishment would keep people in order. But I believe that it leads only to extremists in one direction, and to abandoning the Church’s moral system altogether in the other. Yet I still believe in our ability to relate to God through love (including those people who love but have no knowledge of God) and I believe in the eternal happiness of Heaven. The fate of those who do not love I know nothing about, except that they have failed in the purpose of their lives.

Towards the end of our discussion my friend and I looked for a better approach. St Paul helped us here. He 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. Despite the Church’s questionable traditional approach, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The paternal God

  1. Hock says:

    I am unsure as to what question is being asked here. It seems to be a kind of justification for holding a different view of morality to that which we regard as Church teaching.
    There is a saying that : By innumerable statutes men, only confuse what God achieved in ten.” perhaps the Church is unwittingly guilty of causing this confusion! (Plus the main cause of it.)
    We have the ten Commandments and they are quite clear in themselves and the drive to include, and define, all manner of perceived sins under one of the ten headings is not as helpful as it was intended to be.
    There are of course large areas of ‘what if’s’ but this takes us back to conscience , something we have never resolved on here.
    As for the billions of years in Hell, is God not outside time? Therefore time has no effect. The Church , as far as I am aware , has never defined that any human person is in Hell.

  2. Ann says:

    When I have been in discussion with others (mostly online) about as human beings, some of us can be the most forgiving, loving, and merciful people, though not perfect, but still on a level many would fail to reach, and so these people would never wish the most evil of people to be tortured for all eternity, wouldn’t God be something even more than these humans that can live like this, the response is that God is not a human father……so what is God really like then? God wouldn’t or couldn’t be more compassionate than the most compassionate human alive? Doesn’t make much sense.
    Also, doesn’t that church say that some people are in heaven, isn’t that why we get saints? So why can the church not say some are in hell?Is it because the church trusts in God’s mercy 100% yet that doesn’t dismiss the ‘place’ known as hell.

    • G.D says:

      Ann, i always look at ‘heaven & hell’ as states of being – we choose by our own actions. We can be in (a state of) heaven on earth – but rarely, mea culpa!!
      No idea what God is ‘really like’. But am convinced unconditional love, forever, is a major trait!

  3. G.D says:

    Thank you, Quentin. Wholeheartedly agree with your post.

    Would it be fair to say anything less than ‘perfection’ is sin; and to overcome it love is the only response?

    Specific ‘sinful acts’ are the ‘symptoms’. Which, if left untreated, increase. As we see, experience and know, personally and socially, is the case.

    The symptoms must be relieved in all ways possible, of course. When we find the right way of treating them they get less. But only with medicines that strike at the heart of the disease will they be irradiated …. (spell check did me a favour there, was going to say eradicated) …. and not surface so easily again.

    But to heal the disease we need first to correctly Name it, Identify it, Know it for what it is.
    Only then can we irradiate it. (Bring into the light/ expose to radiation). Of and by love.

    It seems to me we often mistakenly relate to the symptoms (personal & collective) as the cause, and scapegoat whatever or whoever we need to. Doing so we are forced to do ‘violence’ in many ways (not necessarily physical, although that is the all to common ‘easy’ option) to the ‘goats’, load the ‘symptoms of sin’ onto them and drive them away.
    (Blame repress and/or project and self justify. The ego’s antithesis of love).

    The remedy (personally and collectively) is the seemingly small insignificant acts of love & self sacrifice we can all do, toward ourselves and each other. ( Some not so small or insignificant).
    Not to exonerate and compromise, but to alleviate and enable each other.
    By the proliferation of those acts healing can, and indeed does, happen. (And, of course, they will be different for each of us).

    Have we not been given the perfect example? …..’Pick up your cross and follow me’. (Imitate me?).

  4. ignatius says:

    GD,
    ” The remedy (personally and collectively) is the seemingly small insignificant acts of love & self sacrifice we can all do, toward ourselves and each other. ( Some not so small or insignificant).
    Not to exonerate and compromise, but to alleviate and enable each other.
    By the proliferation of those acts healing can, and indeed does, happen. (And, of course, they will be different for each of us).”

    Well put. This is prison ministry in a nutshell. Catholic teaching on these subjects is crystal clear: God does not wish that any should perish but that all should come to everlasting life. Persisting in mortal sin deliberately and wilfully right to the bitter end means that the person has chosen to be seperated from Gods presence. But right up until that last breath we need to seek out and love the sinner as Christ loves them ( that sinner,who is also ourselves by the way).
    It’s great fun to bang on about Hell, sin and law, a shame that we find it so easy.

  5. John Thomas says:

    “eternity is not just the billions of years since the universe was created, it goes on forever.” The thing about eternity is that it is completely outside time. We are wholly within time, and cannot imagine, or speak (except by analogy), of eternity. “Forever” is a word that is time-related; it implies that something has a start, but no conceivable end. God – I believe – is outside time, and things look different from there. Punishments, then, ultimate destinies, are not “forever”, but just ARE. When, after this life/world – which is time-bound – we are in eternity, we will just BE – but, “when” is a time-bound word also. We may think of time as a line, eternity as a circle or ring – but the circle is inadequate, as it implies motion around it; in eternity, all points on the circle are one. This means, curiously, that if we “are to GO” to “heaven” (eternity) there is a sense in which we are there already, and always have been. This, I think, explains the idea of God knowing our (this-worldly) free choices “before” we have made them, and thus the ideas found in theologies of Predestination (and the Biblical verse about “God having made us” each “before the world began”). Curiously, the scientific (materialist?) idea of “multiverses” is not a million miles away.
    God’s justice and punishment: God is so completely other than humans that we can only speak of such things by analogy. Our ideas of justice and punishment – and much else – are just vague analogies; therefore (I think) it is false to think of God as “more” or “less” harsh – or lenient – than us in our earthly justice, or in any real way comparable.
    Well, that’s what I think.

    • ignatius says:

      JT,
      Yes, this simply underpins the catechism. If you continue and deliberately avoid God now then you will avoid God eternally…that’s the whole point. However, since in this world we act freely, then there is a real sense that we choose our destiny, within obvious parameters of course. One might argue, according to your scheme that there was no free will, but there must be since the bible is full of exhortations regarding choice. Likewise with the ‘otherness’ of God, yes God is ‘other’ but we can know something of the parameters of divine justice from the Word of God which includes The Son, the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures and the Prophets..Otherwise we are completely lost in shadows, boxing and weaving with our own thoughts alone…not much point in that is there?

      • ignatius says:

        PS]
        Just to pick a ‘theological bone for a moment:
        ” This, I think, explains the idea of God knowing our (this-worldly) free choices “before” we have made them, and thus the ideas found in theologies of Predestination (and the Biblical verse about “God having made us” each “before the world began”)…”

        You give the impression that God looks out upon the creation as if some kid of finished tapestry where all our tracks are edged in variegated hues. But if God inhabits the ‘eternal now’ ie outside time there is neither ‘past’ nor ‘future’ then how can he ‘see’ in this way. More like, would suggest we grow steadily brighter or more coarse as we grow somehow, until our radiance reflects His, or not.

      • John Thomas says:

        I fancy I “devised” this outlook in response to many decades of pondering Free Will, Determinism, God’s (possible) foreknowledge, etc. – until a wise cleric suggested that the key to such problems was that God was outside time (later, I found such an idea in writings of C S Lewis – much revered by me). I’ve long had the feeling that such things as Predestination, Purgatory (soft-pedalled outside the Catholic Church, of course, but, again, Lewis writes something that is open to that) are not wrong (and Free Will, of course, seems, to me, a sure part of Christianity). Purgatory has to be within time, of course, as it requires progression – so all within time is not within this life/world. Of course there are many problems with my approach, but less, I fancy, than with others.

    • Vincent says:

      John Thomas. of course you are right, we have to speak in metaphor. But that’s just the problem. Your average punter being told that he is liable to be in Hell for all eternity is likely to believe that literally — and all the more likely to do so in the early Church if we happen to be uneducated. Indeed the New Testament seems to go out of its way to be graphic in its descriptions, eg. weeping and gnashing of teeth. One might excuse that at that time but hardly nowadays. Yet the Church’s language does not change.

    • galerimo says:

      Very good – and just one of your several good points stands out for me – the scientific idea of “multiverses” and how it resonates so well with the wonder of God’s creation. g

    • G.D says:

      ….. ‘The thing about eternity is that it is completely outside time.’ …..
      But time is ‘within’ ‘a part of’ eternity?
      God only is eternal … all else is ‘created’. Including time. And only is ‘in being’ because God is there as the ground of Being ….. Jesus the Christ ( the Eternal Perfect God & perfect man) existed within time but remained eternal, so in some sense eternity entered time?
      Personally, i think time is only experienced (as a God given ‘safety net’; and then only as one state of ‘consciousness’ out of many) because of our inability to accept/separation from eternity. When we learn to ‘see’ as God sees we realise it doesn’t, in reality, exist? Space neither?

      Reminds me of the analogy (can’t recall who said it, and i probably paraphrase) of God as Circle, the centre of which exists everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Omnipresent and boundless! …. The Eternal Present Moment? Available to all ‘multiverses’ and ‘moralities’ for ‘time’ and all eternity; to enable creation, formed in God’s image, to freely grow in God’s likeness?

      It has all eternity to do so? And eternity can be a very ‘long time’ for those who don’t accept God’s likeness. For them that do all is Sacrament of the Present Moment.
      (All speculative ponderings on my part, no definitive conclusions).

  6. Geordie says:

    I think it was St Jean Vianney, the Cure of Ars, who said that we cannot be more generous than God. Thus God uses all of His infinite power to save us but He doesn’t take away our free will. If we freely choose to reject God then we send ourselves to hell. I believe that not many, if any, will stubbornly stick to the decision to reject God, when all the facts are shown to them.
    With regard to “Time versus Eternity” do we know for sure that when we die we shall immediately enter Eternity? The catechism taught us that Purgatory is a place of temporal punishment; so do we suffer Purgatory now on Earth or after we die? We all know friends and family who have suffered terribly in this life, so perhaps that is their Purgatory.
    From time to time the Catholic Church as an institution has got itself into a legal maze but many saints tell us that, in spite of our weaknesses, we only have to persevere in our efforts to serve God and we shall be rewarded.

  7. galerimo says:

    Quentin as you are getting “the church’s approach to moral teaching” out of your system right now I am nitpicking at the dualism around your reflections on Catholic morality.

    Married/ Bachelor – Mortal/Venial sin – Years Ago/Still exists now – Fine/ Prison Sentence – Eternity/Billions of years – Magistrate’s Justice/God’s Justice – Extremists one way/Church’s moral system the other way – Relating to God through love/Failing in life’s purpose – rules/ faults – what children should do/ what they shouldn’t.

    St Paul’s “paternity” just sounds like a softer version of the same dualistic approach to right and wrong.

    Morality essentially is the answer to the question “Why be Good? Reflecting theologically on this I conclude that in the process of life I eventually come to realize that I stand as a human being freely invited into relationship (perichoresis!) with God.

    I respond or take responsibility for that invite by living as if it was true – that God is real – God really loves me – liberates me fully at every level of my being.

    The black and white commandments came early in the relationship between God and God’s people. God gave those “words” AFTER setting the people free. The words (dabar) don’t liberate of themselves. They set you up for the journey of life.

    Until Jesus came along they (the ten words), were the means of maintaining the freedom God gave so abundantly and still does – not achieving it.

    How I do freedom in my life (I hope) is manifest in Jesus’ life – especially as he distilled all 10 commandments to one. All personal interaction.

    But the gift comes first – God’s preexisting love – the acceptance of that free gift is where hell comes in (thank God). “Morality” is the way of safeguarding and enhancing life. And my life is basically my free choice in accepting God’s gift of love.

    Hell is not predicated on moral behavior since none of us can fully live a truly moral life all the time. It is predicated on the free choice to love God, or joining in the tango of God’s life as prompted by the Spirit.

    I don’t think that God can be an abuser and condemn people to everlasting union with Godself in Heaven when they plainly and responsibly have decided they don’t want to go there. That would be hell for them.

    I find that it is more true for me to talk about “moralities” rather than “morality” Catholic or otherwise. The way I have behaved with God over the course of a lifetime has certainly changed in the same way as that love has changed.
    The process of maturing makes it less dualistic and more inclusive, a bit more tolerant, and a little less condemnatory. I don’t expect others to be the same any more than I would expect their marriages or other relationships to be exactly the same as mine.

    In short moralities grow and change as relationships (loving my neighbor) deepen and move in their different directions. They bring to light the truth about my ongoing free choice around relating to the mystery that is God

  8. ignatius says:

    JohnThomas:

    To seriously ponder these things is good. I find I spend quite a lot of my time trying to ‘devise’ ways of seeing that will make sense to people. This is a challenge both intellectually and creatively but one which pays dividends when communicating deeper truths to individuals or groups. We could just parrot some phrase or another but good communication relies on actual understanding.

  9. ignatius says:

    Galerimo 1.44pm Dec16:
    “But the gift comes first – God’s preexisting love – the acceptance of that free gift is where hell comes in (thank God). “Morality” is the way of safeguarding and enhancing life. And my life is basically my free choice in accepting God’s gift of love.Hell is not predicated on moral behavior since none of us can fully live a truly moral life all the time. It is predicated on the free choice to love God, or joining in the tango of God’s life as prompted by the Spirit.,,”

    It is pretty obvious from reading the psalms that love is at the centre of relationship with God. This was as true then as it is now. The psalmist speaks of loving both God and the law of God together. When you think about it that is how we profess our faith today, we love because we were first loved and we try to keep the ‘royal law’ because of that. For myself I would also say that we love because we have EXPERIENCED that love in some deep way or another. I don’t think I would be able to make a free choice towards God unless I had indeed ‘tasted’ and ‘seen’ that the Lord is good.

  10. John Nolan says:

    The thing that might just nag at us is that OLJC did speak about hell and warned that many are called but few are chosen.

    Oh, we can ignore all this as being of its time etc etc and we in the 21st century are into ‘luurve’ and all that, and since we have (mostly) good intentions, there is nothing to worry about.

    I wish I could be so sure.

  11. ignatius says:

    Yes, that’s true, no one is sure. But there is also plenty sufficient in the bible to make one press on in hope, John, or would you disagree even with that?

    • John Nolan says:

      Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
      Man never is, but always to be blest:
      The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
      Rest and expatiates in a life to come.

      (A.Pope, Essay on Man, 1734)

      • ignatius says:

        Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
        Man never is, but always to be blest:
        The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
        Rest and expatiates in a life to come.

        (A.Pope, Essay on Man, 1734)

        Thats lovely..and ain’t it just true, guvnor…!!
        Happy Christmas all

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