Who Needs Hell?



The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.


Behind the Veil



Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.


To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.


Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

My Bleeding Heart



The term “bleeding heart liberal” is meant to be an insult. It conjures images of a soft, gullible sap who is willing to give away  your last dollar to some undeserving lout. A bleeding heart liberal is seen as soft on crime and hopelessly idealistic. But I have decided to wear the label proudly and without apology.

First of all, the political right has somehow managed to make the term “liberal” a dirty word. Yet “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.” A dictionary definition includes such laudatory descriptions as “favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms” and “favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform.”

For me, being a liberal means a belief in affording citizens the maximum amount of personal freedom that does not infringe on the rights or safety of others. It means government policy that fairly taxes all, not allowing for loopholes and tax shelters that favor the wealthy and giant corporations. It means giving disadvantaged people a fair shot at the American dream.

But lately my heart has been bleeding. It has been bleeding at the sight of unarmed black men being gunned down or killed in a chokehold. It has been bleeding at senseless “accidental” shootings of and by children who gain access to loaded handguns. My heart bleeds for young military men and women coming home from foreign lands maimed and psychologically distressed – or in caskets to a grieving family.

Victims of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes. Impoverished families increasingly being told what they can and cannot purchase with food stamps. Kids with persistent health problems due to inadequate medical care. Veterans on waiting lists to receive the medical attention they so desperately need and so richly deserve. Teenagers so angry and without hope that they are willing to loot and burn and throw bricks at police officers. The list is virtually endless.

One of the great features of my oft-maligned Catholic faith is its insistence on social justice. Dorothy Day, a candidate for sainthood, was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Pope Francis has renewed the call for helping the poor and disenfranchised. He even spoke out recently in favor of equal pay for women.

If my bleeding heart makes me soft, so be it. I will always be a champion of those who find it hard to fight for themselves. I will always seek to vote for government leaders who are committed to social justice. I was proud to vote for President Obama and would do so gladly if I had it to do over again.

The dictionary also defines “liberal” as “concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience.” Though my education thus far has hardly been perfect or complete, I will never stop trying to learn and understand our world and the people in it.

Papa Don’t Preach



When Pope Francis responded, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a reporter’s question about gay clergy in the Catholic Church, I had to scrape my jaw off the floor. Prior to this statement, the new pontiff had already ushered in a breath of fresh air to the Church when he called for a return to focusing on issues of social justice, such as caring for the poor. Rather than chastise nuns for spending too much time helping the poor instead of speaking out about abortion like his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis declared that the Church’s focus on issues such as abortion and gay marriage should shift.

In his first week as pope, Francis declared, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.” (James Carroll, The New Yorker) The new pope’s style is in keeping with his message. He has toned down the pomp of the office, wears simple white garb and traded the papal Mercedes for a Ford Focus. He goes out among the people and meets them on their level. And he practices the Gospel message of serving the marginalized members of society. Last year on Holy Thursday, he celebrated Mass at a correctional institution and got down on hands and knees to wash the feet of the inmates.

Despite this more compassionate tone, the Holy Father insists that he is not out to change doctrine. Those of us wanting to see women ordained priests, for example, should probably not get our hopes up. Yet Pope Francis made this iconoclastic statement:

“I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers. . . . Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” (Carroll)

Non-Catholics might not find this statement remarkable. But for Pope Francis’s flock, this statement signifies an openness that has not been present in the papacy for decades.

Don’t get me wrong. No one, including even the Bishop of Rome, is perfect. Some Argentinians have criticized his lack of action during the so-called “dirty wars” when hundreds of people disappeared in ruthless government crackdowns. And many people are unhappy with the low profile he has given to eliminating the child sexual abuse that has plagued the Church and claimed thousands of victims worldwide. However, just this week Pope Francis appointed an Irish woman named Marie Collins, who was herself abused by a priest as a child, to an advisory panel designed to “fight the clerical sexual abuse of minors that has haunted it for over two decades.” (Chicago Tribune, Sunday, March 23, 2014)

Unlike his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is viewed as a man of the people. He has even graced the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year. Even the Vatican press secretary, Federico Lombardi, is singing a happier tune these days. Referring to his job before the new pope took office, he said, “The people thought I always had a negative message for them. I am very happy that, with Francis, the situation has changed. . .  “Now I am at the service of a message . . . of love and mercy.” (Carroll)