More On Fire and Brimstone

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In another comment to the same post referenced below, Jeff Culbreath notes:

Fire and brimstone sermons are a good thing. We need more of them in the Catholic Church. I would hope that neither you nor Erik object to the hellfire in Puritan homiletics, but that you rather object to the Calvinist notion that God's grace is arbitrary, and that certain unfortunate souls were created by God for hell with no possibility of repentance.

I wrote a hasty reply and wished to give this further consideration.

I don't know that "fire and brimstone sermons are a good thing--" part of the purpose of writing this is to explore that notion a bit more. I don't know that they are a bad thing. I suppose I would say that I think they are perhaps a necessary thing. If not fire and brimstone, at least a better articulation of the doctrine of sin, what happens to sinners, and how to avoid that happening. Now this can take a great many forms, from Edwards, discussed below, to Joyce, mentioned below, to many other sophisticated articulations of the same doctrine. However, it seems to largely have vanished from the Catholic scene. The "Spirit of Vatican II" interpreters seem not to care for the harsher side of Catholic Doctrine and it is often left to the lay people to insist upon God's justice as strongly as God's mercy. This is a pity.

If our pastors felt more call to carefully pronounce anathema on those things the Church condemns, and to do it with great regularity, it might serve as a check not only upon wayward congregants but upon wayward inclinations within the clergy itself. Reminders that salvation is not guaranteed, nor merited, nor earned, nor in any way dependent upon ourselves, but utterly dependent upon God's grace and our acceptance thereof (so to some extent dependent upon us, but even His omnipresent grace makes possible that initial acceptance) are salutary. They encourage the overall health of the body, not by terror, but by precaution.

Frequently we should hear from the pulpit that abortion is wrong and procuring one or assisting in the procuring even to the extent of supporting the legality of the action is wrong and incurs de facto excommunication without any such being pronounced. This truth should not be left to the ranks of apologists and pro-life lay people. We should see the spectacle of Bishops refusing communion to prominent pro-choice politicians on a more regular basis. This should not be a point for marveling, but the expected occurrence.

We would do well to hear about everyday sins--taking things home from the office, exploiting other people, adultery, fornication, and all manner of other sins.

I suppose current theory has it that one can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar. But the impression I get more often from many Catholic sermons and speakers is a sense of complacency. That everything is copacetic and we live in the best of all possible worlds, ice-skating or rollerblading our way into heaven. We should be aware of that great folk song that advises us:

"Oh I can't get to heaven
(Oh I can't get to heaven)
on roller skates
(on roller skates)
Cause I'll roll right by
(Cause I'll roll right by)
those pearly gates
(those pearly gates)


I ain't gonna grieve my Lord no more,
I ain't gonna grieve my Lord no more,
I ain't gonna grieve my Lord on more.

I cannot believe that Paul wrote "I work out my salvation in fear and trembling" for no reason. Thus, while I do believe in the mercy of God and in the ultimate possibility of heaven, I doubt I would come to any harm if someone were to tell me the consequences of sin, or even speak about what is and is not a sin.

I don't know that I'd want to hear this every day--but perhaps Mr. Culbreath is correct. Perhaps a bit of fire and brimstone is a salutary remedy for the complacency and mediocrity with which many go about their Christian lives. Perhaps a bit of reminder of what we have been freed from and what we are called to through the incredible sacrifice of our Lord is a remedy for many of the ills we are presently tracking in the Church.

Perhaps we need to start the next "Great Awakening."

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If we look at the emphasis that Jesus had on Hell we can see that he mentioned Hell and Judgment frequently. The actuality of Hell should be emphasized more frequently than it currently is, but not to be the exclusive topic. As is usually the case there needs to be a balance. In the Five years that I have attended Mass at various churches I have not heard one homily on Hell or damnation.

Ideally we should all love God and follow him because he in infinitely lovable. That the fear of punishment would never be part of the equation. In this fallen world we need to be reminded of both. If we don't take Hell seriously, we also don't take sin seriously.

Your exactly right about the complacency that has set in. When I used to go out on six month cruises in the Navy, there would hardly be any serious accidents during the first couple of months. Toward the end of the cruise the accidents would rise because of the complacency of living in a dangerous environment daily and not remembering that it is a dangerous environment.

Dear Jeff,

What a wonderful point and analogy. Thank you.



The problem I see, sitting in the pews, is that the congregations have grown so accustomed to their drive-through Mass experience that any uncomfortable truth is apt to drive them out of the pews entirely. Perhaps I am not giving them enough credit, but I have not gotten a great overall impression of the educational status of the laity. For some, the idea that what they sortof-halfway-kinda believe is *wrong* may be very shocking. I was nearly overwhelmed two years ago, while taking the preparation classes for my older daughter's First Communion. Half a dozen people at my table had no idea what the standards were for the eucharistic bread and wine-- and outright questioned whether or not we should be using wine at all. After all, they said brightly and remorselessly, grape juice would be just as good, wouldn't it?

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I tried to refute these notions. Our catechist was nowhere in sight, so I couldn't enlist her help. I know that these people were probably in thrall to the "dry toast" phenomenon-- several of them brought their little yuppie bottled waters with them to the class (no drinking watery punch for them, no sir.) But if their education has been SO poor, what's the pastor to do?

Sure, we need a strong moral framework to be given to us from the homily, but at this period in history, the priests may have to start by making us all recite the Baltimore catchism for half an hour each Sunday.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 18, 2003 8:22 AM.

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