In June, I began reading The Inferno. This is my first excursion into Danteland, as I like to call it. (What do you think, Your Excellency? Wouldn’t The Divine Comedy make a great theme park? “Visit Danteland! Have the hell scared out of you! Get a taste of heaven!” Think of the rides, Your Excellency, the costumes, the refreshments, the revenues.) I intended to finish the entire work by summer’s end, but my progress is slow, in part because I keep dozing off. It is not the Florentine’s verse that renders me unconscious, but heat and exhaustion; my apartment has no air-conditioner, and I sleep poorly, an insomnia doubtless derived from my age and a bad conscience. (Last year during a root canal, I actually dozed off with my mouth full of dental instruments.) At any rate, I am still stuck in hell, which is the subject of my letter to you. Not a thought to console the sleepless, eh, Your Excellency?
I seek clarification in regard to Church teaching on Hell. After reading The Inferno—some of Dante’s fiery regions, by the way, bring to mind certain South Florida shopping malls—I decided I really don’t ever want to go to Hell, not even for a visit. (I teach the Aeneid to Advanced Placement students, but would prefer meeting Virgil in a cooler climate.) Certainly, Your Excellency, I have no desire to be condemned to Hell for an eternity, which, as you know, is a pretty long time.
At first, I was uncertain whether the Church shared my newfound concern for blaze and brimstone. In 15 years as a Catholic, I have heard only one priest mention Hell from the pulpit. Perhaps, I thought, the Church in Her wisdom had decided that Hell, like Limbo, no longer exists. To be on the safe side, I consulted my Catechism, but found to my horror the contrary to be true. Not only does the Church affirm the existence of “the unquenchable fire,” She also teaches that Hell is like the Kiwanis Club: pretty much anyone is eligible for membership. The Catechism quotes Our Lord here: “[T]he gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”
Was it possible, I wondered, that Christ was just putting on His followers? After all, who could resist teasing guys like Peter and Thomas? This conjecture comforted me until I googled the subject, whereupon I learned that Jesus mentioned Hell 70 times. That’s 69 more times than I’ve heard in all the Masses I have attended.
My speculations regarding Hell have given rise to some confusion. I hope you can help me with the items I have enumerated below.
First, is Dante correct? Does Hell provide special punishments for different offenses? How will a telemarketer be punished? What sort of agonies might be meted out to an afternoon talk-show host? The possibilities seem endless.
Second, our Catholic homeschool group recently fought a savage war of words. Several members loosed their tongues while simultaneously losing their minds. A few offenders have rejected reconciliation with their fellow Catholics. Question: Will otherwise good Catholics go to Hell for such offenses, or does God take under consideration such circumstances as menopause, inflated egos, and male mid-life crises?
Third, a priest I know advocates an open-borders policy with Mexico. This same priest has declared that the Church is a reflection of Heaven on earth. Does this mean that Heaven has an open-borders policy? If, in other words, I’m sent to Hell, can I be smuggled across the border? I sure hope so. Some of my holy friends are willing to help me, but I need to get them some details. Believe me, I don’t mind washing dishes in the Celestial Kitchen, as long as God grants me amnesty and a green card in perpetuity.
Fourth, was it St. John Chrysostom who said that the floors of Hell are paved with the skulls of bishops? Does that idea depress you? It would depress me if I were bishop. Anyway, my question: Chrysostom died over 1,500 years ago. What do you think Satan has done with bishops’ skulls since then? Is he enlarging Hell, or is he using bishops’ skulls in some other decorative fashion? Do you ever lie awake at night pondering these matters? I hope not: That sort of conjecture gives men our age insomnia.
Fifth, why doesn’t the Church tell us more about Hell?
Some priests resist addressing certain topics from the pulpit—abortion, homosexuality, adultery—for fear of offending parishioners. Please reassure them that Hell is a safe homiletic topic. The average parishioner, like most Americans, automatically assumes that he himself is not bound for the Abyss. This same parishioner will therefore believe that the priest considers his fellow pew-warmers candidates for Hell, a prospect that will secretly delight the parishioner and keep his attention.
Let me close with a proposition, Your Excellency. This afternoon, beneath a blazing sun, I sat for one hour on the asphalt roof that serves as my porch. I ate salty nacho chips dipped in hot salsa. I forbade myself liquid refreshment. I randomly selected an insurance agent from the Yellow Pages and spent half an hour on the phone with him discussing term life. I spent the next 30 minutes watching my neighbor’s home movies on a portable television. With some fine-tuning, I believe I can create a passable imitation of Hell and would be delighted to reproduce this vision of the fiery furnace in workshops throughout the diocese. Interested?
Wishing you eternally cool breezes, Your Excellency,