BLOG—Rest in Hell, Bernard Law
- Published: December 21, 2017
I’m a pastor and I do not believe in Hell.
At least, I don’t believe in the Hell of Dante and Milton. I don’t believe in the Hell of a terrorist God. I have no use for a Hell that is designed for those who recite the wrong creed, or deny the existence of God, or ask questions, or explore their bodies, or enjoy sex that is not for the sole purpose of creation.
I am more of a Sartrean: Hell is other people.
Hell is other people like Bernard Law, the Roman Catholic Cardinal who oversaw the Archdiocese of Boston beginning in 1984. From that year until 2002, nearly 250 priests, including Father John Geoghan, who over the course of thirty years molested around 130 boys, were protected by Law. He knowingly sent abusive priests to other archdioceses or accepted priests known to be predators. Thanks to the incredible journalism of the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe that shined a light on the breadth and depth of abuse, Law was forced to resign on December 13, 2002. Over 1,000 victims were left wondering if their Church would ever console them.
The response of Pope John Paul II was to name Law, who moved to Rome, Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, perhaps the most beautiful church in Rome. Law, who died earlier this week, is having a funeral mass today which will include the presence of Pope Francis.
The Valley of Hinnon was also site to rituals involving fire, and by the time of the prophet Jeremiah, a trash pit with an ever-burning fire and the place where the Babylonians threw the bodies of their victims. This, connected with a growing Hellenist belief in a coming judgment, made Gehenna the perfect metaphor for prophets to use when speaking about what will happen to the wicked.
Jesus defined the wicked as those who do not operate their lives based upon the principles of love, mercy, compassion, and equanimity. Sadly, Christians have long fallen short of these ideals. I make no secret about my disdain for the sort of American Christianity we see in the public sphere. I understand completely why people have run away from the Church, why they are distrustful of clergy, why we are deemed hypocritical, and Bernard Law is a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with Christianity.
I believe in a Hell that we can create with its own fiery pit, into which we can throw the memories and reputations of people like Bernard Law. We can purge with fire.
Let’s never forget, though, that the Church universal is made of people. Some make Hell, others go through it. There are a lot of good people hurting right now. There are good and faithful Catholics who believe in the teachings and have an earnest faith, but who are looking at a Church that might once again chose the abuser over the abused. A supposedly progressive pope is going to be present at Law’s funeral. I imagine that there are a lot of Catholics praying that something will be said about the countless horrors that were experienced because of Law’s complicity. How many suicides? Heroin overdoses? How many broken marriages? How many sexual identities formed with rape as the virgin experience? Will their voices be lifted up to God by Pope Francis?
How many victims are right now feeling guilt over the fact that this death brings them joy? I’m not saying that they should feel guilty, they shouldn’t. But when you are serious about being a Christian, it means having a core belief that each person is created in the image of God, and that we are commanded to love one another. We take that seriously, and it can cause great conflict within oneself when in the company of evil.
That is the Hell that Law and others create, which requires us to help create a corresponding heaven. If we do anything to mark Law’s death, let it be that we donate to organizations that provide treatment for those sexually abused. Let us take social workers out to lunch, or volunteer our own time, talent, and treasure to address the Hell among us. Let’s see those people that evil tries to prevent us from seeing, and let the fires of Gehenna burn.