he scandal of the idea of mortal sin is really the scandal of the idea of everlasting punishment. That a person may deprive himself of heaven doesn’t really bother us. Nobody deserves heaven, and for heaven to end up filled with the defiantly unrepentant would contradict its nature. No, what bothers us is the idea of eternal physical torture. This is not just an issue of sexual sins. An infinite punishment of this sort is out of all proportion to any human offense, according to our very basic intuitions of fairness. One may say that these intuitions are wrong in this case, but they cannot just be dismissed as “feelings”, since they are integral to all our moral reasoning. One must show how they are wrong.
According to Anselm, our sins actually are infinitely bad, because they offend against an infinite Good. There’s also an idea going around among Catholic writers that the souls in hell are utterly bad, continually cursing God. Probably they’d say that adulterers keep committing adultery in hell–this being a much less grave sin in my book than blaspheming against God!–but that would give the impression that hell is fun.
In fact, this idea of the souls in hell as utterly bereft of sympathetic attributes comes more from 20th century Catholicism’s repudiation of the idea of pure nature/natural perfection and consequent muddling of the categories of nature and grace. No one possesses supernatural virtues in hell, so they must not possess any virtues at all, or so the idea goes. In fact, a creature cannot exist at all without instantiating some of the virtues proper to its nature. It was traditionally believed that there was a part of hell without punishment, indeed a place of natural happiness: Limbo, the abode of unbaptized babies and righteous pagans. In the 20th century, Limbo fell out of favor. Still, the idea of some sort of virtue and even worthwhile post-mortem existence outside of heaven has a perfectly orthodox pedigree.
Post-Lubac Catholics still intuit that an eternity in flames for sleeping with your girlfriend or skipping Church is disproportionate. Thus arose the folk-Catholic belief (which I grew up with) that all these people go to Purgatory, and eventually to heaven (suitably punished and rehabilitated to perfect virtue). Hell is just for Hitler and Stalin. The trouble with this solution is that it depends on not knowing what the Church teaches is gravely sinful. Given this depressing knowledge, one can only avoid the conclusion that the vast majority of humanity is destined for eternal torture by muddying the concepts of knowledge and consent until you convince yourself that people aren’t really freely choosing to do what they seem to be freely choosing to do (e.g. contracept). This is Pope Francis territory. I actually do sympathize with the motivation, but this road also leads to disaster. If one follows it honestly, one concludes that nobody ever really consents to anything. Sin is impossible. Marriage is impossible. Baptism is impossible.
If we had held on to Limbo, the temptation would have been different. What seems fair to me? Finite sins should receive finite-duration punishment. After that, the damned souls should be, if they are not obstinate and show good will (which is possible even without grace), rehabilitated to natural virtue and residence in Limbo. Advantages of this: (1) It preserves the importance of not dying in mortal sin without offending our moral sensibilities. It still has eternal consequences. Once you’re sent to hell, the torture will end, but you’ll never get to heaven. (2) It explains how the elect can be happy even if their families aren’t saved, which would be hard to imagine if their spouses, parents, and children were consigned to eternal torture. (3) It would clarify for Catholics that the main thing they’re after in pursuing holiness is union with God, not avoidance of punishment. The only trouble with this idea is that it is not how the Church has traditionally understood her doctrine.
So we’re back to finding some way to reconcile ourselves to eternal torture for the mass of mankind. Not that we should cease to find this horrible, but that we should start to find it reasonable. We must either convince ourselves that the outcome is just or that it is unavoidable. I have not convinced myself of either, but I admit that I have not spent long on such grim speculations. The most I have done is to argue that I should try to convince myself, rather than imagine that I am more merciful than God.